My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act

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A major new work, a hybrid of history, journalism, and memoir, about the modern Freedom of Information Act – FOIA – and the horrifying, decades-old government misdeeds that it is unable to demystify, from one of America's most celebrated writers

Eight years ago, while investigating the possibility that the United States had used biological weapons in the Korean War, Nicholson Baker requested a series of Air Force documents from the early 1950s under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Years went by, and he got no response. Rather than wait forever, Baker set out to keep a personal journal of what it feels like to try to write about major historical events in a world of pervasive redactions, witheld records, and glacially slow governmental responses. The result is one of the most original and daring works of nonfiction in recent memory, a singular and mesmerizing narrative that tunnels into the history of some of the darkest and most shameful plans and projects of the CIA, the Air Force, and the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. 

In his lucid and unassuming style, Baker assembles what he learns, piece by piece, about Project Baseless, a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve "an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date." Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program. At the same time, Baker tells the stories of the heroic journalists and lawyers who have devoted their energies to wresting documentary evidence from goverment repositories, and he shares anecdotes from his daily life in Maine feeding his dogs and watching the morning light gather on the horizon. The result is an astonishing and utterly disarming story about waiting, bureaucracy, the horrors of war, and, above all, the cruel secrets that the United States government seems determined to keep forever from its citizens.


“Written with bemused fascination and occasional outrage . . . this lucid yet freewheeling narrative unearths much queasy detail about biological weapons and their promoters. The result is a colorful, engrossing recreation of a sinister history—and a convincing case for opening government archives to public scrutiny.” Publishers Weekly
“Engaging, bracing, and moving new book . .  Ultimately, what is so compelling about Baseless is not the prosecutorial brief. It’s watching Baker, a thoughtful, sensitive, and vividly expressive soul, grapple with the pathological secrecy of his own government and with the heinousness of what he suspects it has done.” —The New Republic
 “Gripping . . . This flowing account reveals the dark side of wartime strategies clouded by denials of FOIA requests. It will fascinate Cold War-era historians and readers concerned about access to government information.” Library Journal

“The leading villains in Baker’s saga, which he aptly describes as ‘a sort of case study, or diary, or daily meditation, on the pathology of government secrecy,’ are the Air Force, Army, and CIA, and his disclosures are rarely banal but rather consistently provocative and disturbing. Using both direct and circumstantial evidence, the author suggests that illegal weapons have been used against North Korea and perhaps against so-called enemy forces in other nations. Readers should be impressed by Baker’s persistence, and most will end up charmed, however obliquely, by his obsessions.” Kirkus Reviews

“The synchronicity is extraordinary, almost chilling: Nicholson Baker’s gripping diary of his endless attempts to ferret out facts relating to the Pentagon’s top-secret biological weapons programs is published while the whole world is suddenly upended and aghast amid a lethal biological attack of an apparently natural origin.  I say apparently natural - for as every page of this book is peppered with tales of bizarre weapons - infected feathers, for God’s sake! plague-saturated voles! -  you come away doubting everything  the US government ever says.  And yet, through it all, Baker tells us with a meticulous diarist’s calm about his dogs and the Maine countryside and the birdsong, and you feel, in the end, everything will be alright, and germ-free.” —Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China and The Professor and the Madman
“A luminous meditation on the power of secrets and mysteries. Baker shows us the ways in which a government shielded by a bodyguard of lies threatens the foundations of democracy.” —Tim Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Legacy Of Ashes and The Folly and the Glory
“One of America's most brilliantly creative writers navigates the mirrored labyrinth of government secrecy with a combination of astonishment and rage.  Along the way, he discovers an array of long-hidden terrors while balancing the joys of daily life against the dread that envelops all who confront the reality of covert power.” —Stephen Kinzer, author of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control


March 9, 2019, Saturday


In 2012, when I was hopeful and curious and middle-aged and eager for Cold War truth, I sent a letter to the National Archives, requesting, under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, copies of twenty-one still-classified Air Force memos from the early 1950s. Some of the memos had to do with a Pentagon program that aimed to achieve "an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date." This program, which began and ended during the Korean War, was given a code name: Project Baseless. It was assigned priority category I, as high as atomic weapons.


All twenty-one of these memos, numbered and cross-referenced, still exist, stored at the National Archives' big building in College Park, Maryland-but they are inaccessible to researchers like me. At some point a security officer removed them from their original brown or dark green Air Force file folders-where they'd been stored alongside thousands of other, often fascinating documents that are now declassified and available to the public-and locked them in a separate place in the College Park building, in a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, where only people with security clearances can go. In place of the actual documents, the security officer inserted pieces of stiff yellow cardboard that say "Security-Classified Information" and "ACCESS RESTRICTED."


After filing the FOIA request, I waited. A month later I got a letter from David Fort, a supervisory archives specialist at the National Archives' National Declassification Center. Fort said that my request letter had been received and that it now had a number, NW 37756. "Pursuant to 5 USC 552(a)(6)(B)(iii)(III), if you have requested information that is classified, it will be necessary to send copies of the documents to appropriate agencies for further review," Fort wrote. "We will notify you as soon as all review is complete."


After that came months of silence. A year went by. Then two. In May 2014, David Fort, now deputy director of the Freedom of Information division at the National Archives, wrote me an email. "Periodically our office contacts researchers with requests older than 18 months to see if they are still interested in us processing their requests," he said. "If I do not hear back from you in 35 business days I will assume you are no longer interested and we will close your request."


I wrote back that I was definitely still interested, and I asked Fort why it was taking so long. "Unfortunately," he replied, "because of the large number of cases we receive there is a large delay in being able to process requests."


In June 2016 I asked for another update. "We sent your documents out for a declassification review back in August 2014 and are still waiting for agencies to get back to us with determinations," Fort wrote. "As soon as that happens we can send you the documents."



IsnÕt it against the law for government agencies to delay their responses to FOIA requests? Yes, it is: the mandated response time in the law is twenty days, not including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, and if one agency must consult with another agency before releasing a given document, the consultation must happen Òwith all practicable speed.Ó And yet there is no speed. There is, on the contrary, a deliberate Pleistocenian ponderousness. Some responses, especially from intelligence agencies, come back after a ten-year wait. The National Archives has pending at least one FOIA request that is twenty-five years old. ÒOld enough to rent a car,Ó said the National Security Archive, a group at George Washington University that works to get documents declassified.


So what should I do? Write more letters? Sue the Air Force? Sue the National Archives? Give up? Do these particular Pentagon memos even matter, when there are many thousands of declassified Korean War-era documents readily available to historians?


I did the simplest thing. I sent another email to David Fort. "Hi David-I hope all is well with you. I'm still hoping to see the twenty-one Air Force documents I requested in March 2012 (NW 37756). Seven years ago." I deleted the words "seven years ago." Then I typed them again. Seven years I've waited. I sent it.


For good measure, I also sent another email to David (who is a nice man) asking for information on a different request, a Mandatory Declassification Review that I'd submitted in March 2017. A Mandatory Declassification Review request, or MDR, is subject to different rules than a Freedom of Information Act request, and it can move along faster, or so I've heard. "Hi David-This MDR (# 57562, for two Air Force RG 341 documents from 1950) is now close to two years old. What should I do? Many thanks Nick B."



Yesterday my wife, M., and I got two middle-aged, very small dachshunds from the Bangor Humane Society-possibly stepbrothers, one with long hair and one with short hair. They whimper and yowl and wag their tails so hard they make bonging sounds against the oven door. TheyÕre rescue dogs. M. saw them on the Humane Society website.


March 10, 2019, Sunday


The two dogs slept in our bedroom last night. The cat, Minerva, is getting used to them. It was so cold outside at six this morning that one of the dogs, Cedric, simply stopped walking in the middle of the street. He wouldn't move. I had to carry his shivering self home, while the other dog, whom we're thinking of calling Brindle, or Briney, or Bryn, trotted along next to me.


This afternoon, I heard back from David Fort. Kind of him to respond on a Sunday. He's in an awkward position, caught in the middle, with impatient inquirers like me on one side and huge, self-protective government agencies on the other. I interviewed him in the lobby of the National Archives Building in College Park two years ago. "What I tell researchers is we're in a bind," he said. "The National Archives has no legal authority to declassify records-with the exception of some State Department records if they're prior to 1950." Fort, who wears plaid shirts and is writing a book about the Battle of Bladensburg in the War of 1812, has reduced the backlog of open FOIA requests at the Archives. He tells his staff to be communicative with researchers. "There's a lot of frustration out there," he said. "All we can do is say we agree with you."


The Air Force is causing the holdup now, not the National Archives, but the National Archives, which has taken physical possession of the documents, is the point of contact. Fort said in his email that the Air Force is "the worst" at responding to declassification requests. In my experience, the Central Intelligence Agency is the worst. But neither of them are abiding by the law.


Let me explain why, out of the millions of pages of military records from the 1950s, these twenty-one withdrawn memos might matter. It's not only because any document that a government takes special pains to keep away from historians, using a yellow access-restricted card, is likely to be revealing in some way. It's also because these documents in particular may help answer one of the big unresolved questions of the Cold War: Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry-bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance-in locations in China and Korea?



The Pentagon instituted its secret crash program in germ-warfare readiness in the fall of 1950; six months later, in May 1951, North KoreaÕs foreign minister, Pak Hon-yong (variously spelled Pak Hen En and Park Hun-young), made a formal complaint to the United Nations, announcing Òa new monstrous crime of the American interventionists.Ó During their rapid retreat from North Korea, Minister Pak alleged, U.S. troops had deliberately spread smallpox.


The American press barely noticed. "Foe Charges Use of Bacteria" was the May 9, 1951, headline of a tiny United Press wire service article, printed on an inner page of The New York Times, surrounded by ads for budget shoes from John Wanamaker, nylon robes from Gimbels, and Mother's Day hats from Bloomingdale's. "The Communist North Korean government demanded today that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and Lieut. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway be tried as war criminals for using 'bacteriological warfare' in the Korean War." That was all it said. The next day, a brief story in the New York Herald Tribune, republished in The Washington Post, began: "A charge that U.N. forces employed bacteriological warfare in North Korea, which caused 3500 smallpox cases between January and April, 10 percent fatal, was filed here today by the North Korean Communist Foreign Minister, Pak Hen En."


The charge was not lightly made, and it deserved more coverage. Minister Pak had sent a long cablegram to the United Nations, where he had no standing, because only the South Korean half of that artificially divided country was allowed to be a member of the General Assembly. What Pak said was that the Americans, with the help of the Japanese, had spread an epidemic disease-he called it smallpox-during their retreat late in 1950. "It has been established by medical experts that the American troops retreating from North Korea in December last year resorted to spreading smallpox infection amongst the population of the areas of North Korea temporarily occupied by them, trying by this means to spread a smallpox epidemic to the troops of the People's Army and Chinese volunteers," he said. Outbreaks of the epidemic had flared simultaneously in Pyongyang and several other provinces "seven or eight days after their liberation from the American occupation." By mid-April, Pak said, there were more than 3,500 smallpox cases, and 10 percent of patients were dying. "Areas which have not been occupied by the Americans have had no cases of smallpox," he said, and he charged that on General MacArthur's orders, the mass production of bacteriological agents had been carried out in Japan. "It has been reported in the press that MacArthur's staff spent 1,500,000 yen on the manufacture of the bacteriological weapon, having selected the Japanese government as intermediary in the placing of orders." This was a sign, Pak said, of the bankruptcy of the U.S. ruling circles' aggressive adventurist policy. The Americans believed that they would undermine the Korean people, but they had miscalculated. "Criminal methods of war do not intimidate the freedom-loving Korean people and will not save the American interventionists from inevitable defeat."


American authorities "flatly denied" the charges, according to the Associated Press, attributing the epidemic to an ineffective disease prevention program.



In February 1952, Foreign Minister Pak charged that the Americans were at it again. ÒAccording to precise information of the command of the Korean PeopleÕs Army and the Chinese PeopleÕs Volunteers,Ó Pak said on the radio on February 22, 1952, Òthe American aggressive troops with effect from January 28 of this year have been systematically dropping a large number of infected insects from aircraft on to our troop positions on our rear, and these insects are spreading the bacteria of infectious diseases.Ó The American imperialists were, according to Pak, Òwaging bacteriological warfare in our country on a wide scale,Ó and they were doing so with the help of Japanese Òmyrmidons,Ó whose crimes were known to the world.


The Associated Press briefly covered Pak's speech. "North Korea's foreign minister has accused United Nations forces of raining 'fleas, lice, bugs, ants, grasshoppers and spiders' onto North Korea," the article said, as reprinted in the New York Herald Tribune on February 23, 1952. "The Communist premier said former Japanese generals who were known to be specialists in germ warfare are assisting Americans in Korea." United Press covered the speech at greater length, saying that the North Koreans claimed that "deadly insects" were dropped on nine flights between January 28 and February 17. United Press identified the insects as "black flies, fleas, and bed bugs," which delighted an editor at the Waterloo Daily Courier, in Waterloo, Iowa (home of a large John Deere tractor factory), who put the story on the front page: "Reds Claim U.S. Planes Drop Bed Bugs." Some versions of the UP article carried an added paragraph: "The claim recalled Communist charges of more than a year ago that U.S. planes dropped potato bugs on Czechoslovakia to destroy crops." The insects were wrapped in paper bags or paper tubes, the Communists claimed.


From there the accusations grew in volume-gradually at first, but rising to an amazing steady onslaught, a "torrent of propaganda," as United Press called it. On February 25, 1952, Chinese prime minister Chou En-lai charged that President Truman had ordered the germ-warfare attacks. "Refusing to acknowledge their defeat, during the course of the talks the American imperialists are, on the one hand, making use of all kinds of shameful delaying tactics with the aim of preventing the success of the talks, and on the other, are conducting a cruel, inhuman bacteriological war," Chou said. The Americans were trying to extend and prolong the Korean War, he said, and they sought to destroy the People's Republic. "In the name of the Chinese people, before the peoples of the whole world, I accuse the government of the United States of the criminal use of bacteriological weapons in violation of all principles of humanity."


Initially The New York Times ignored this second round of charges, as if the editors had made a decision not to publicize such absurdities, but on February 25, 1952, the Times gave it a paragraph on page 2, reprinting an Associated Press version of the story: "The Peiping radio continued last night its new and violent accusations that the United States was using germ warfare in North Korea. Allied officers consider it possible that the Communists are plagued by epidemics and are trying to account for these to their own people." (Peiping is Beijing.)


On this same day, February 25, 1952, at a meeting of the Central Intelligence Agency, Frank Wisner, director of covert operations, gave a report to Allen Dulles and other department heads on the progress of an unspecified "deception matter." Two whited-out paragraphs follow shortly afterward. (CIA redactionists now mostly use white triangles, rather than black rectangles, to withhold lines of text.) Also on this day, February 25, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved the Joint Advanced Study Committee's recommendations on biological warfare. The committee recommended that the United States "be prepared to employ BW whenever it is militarily advantageous." "This action removed BW from its unfortunate association with the 'retaliation only' policy which governs CW," said a later memo. General Hoyt Vandenberg, chief of the Air Force, wrote an upbeat assessment of biowar prospects. "The research and development program is being expedited," he said, "and certain offensive capabilities are rapidly materializing."


On February 26, 1952, Kuo Mo Jo (Guo Moruo), a famous Chinese poet and political figure, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese People's Committee for World Peace, issued a statement: "In violation of all principles of human morals, the predatory American troops in Korea are carrying out bacteriological warfare," Kuo said. "They have repeatedly scattered bacteria-infected insects in large quantities on the front line and in the rear of the Chinese and Korean people's troops. The vileness of this inhuman crime of the American invaders has shaken the entire Chinese people and provoked unprecedented indignation."


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