Nicholson Baker’s Maddening Search for the Truth

Nicholson Baker’s Maddening Search for the Truth

The Blacked-Out Line

Nicholson Baker in the labyrinths of American secrecy.


Nicholson Baker lay awake at night again beside his slumbering wife and their dogs, his mind caught in the tunnel of his obsession. As the novelist recounts in Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act, he couldn’t stop thinking about the US government’s efforts to develop biological weapons during the early Cold War.

Baker harbored a suspicion: Maybe, when Korean and Chinese communists accused the United States of dropping plague bombs during the Korean War some 70 years ago—a claim the US government vehemently denied and that generations of Americans have been taught was a lie—they were actually telling the truth. Or, at least, maybe there was a kernel of truth mixed in with those clumsy fabrications and propaganda, and the US government has been covering up some long-ago battlefield use of taboo weaponry.

Some historians and researchers before Baker have also suspected that something about the accusations was true, notwithstanding the failure of hard evidence to come to light in the intervening decades. But Baker believed that concrete evidence may nevertheless exist, hidden away in the vaults of the National Archives’ restricted files. Certainly, the US government had a motive to heighten its attacks on the communist forces surging down the Korean Peninsula during the war, and there is reason to think it also had the means: As Baker describes, many documents about extensive American bioweapons research at Fort Detrick, Md., in the years following World War II have been declassified, showing that the US government invested heavily in ghastly research on how to weaponize and deliver germs that could wipe out vast areas of crops or kill the entire populations of cities and towns. But motive and means, by themselves, are merely circumstantial evidence suggesting that it is possible the United States used some of those weapons, despite its denials—not proof that it did.

Baker has long been intrigued by the fact that the declassified versions of government documents concerning bioweapons from this era that are available still tend to be heavily censored. The continued secrecy, for him, raises a striking question: What other information do these documents contain that remains so sensitive after all this time that the US government continues to hide it from the American public and the rest of the world under these redactions?

Baker—a pacifist who previously wrote Human Smoke, which controversially suggested that World War II was not worth fighting and portrayed Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt as warmongers alongside Adolf Hitler—decided to immerse himself in this mystery, working meticulously through these blacked-out or whited-out passages to puzzle over what might lurk beneath the censor’s markings.

To liberate that information, Baker attempted to use the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which Congress passed in a burst of mid-1960s idealism for democratic self-government and significantly strengthened as its first major post-Watergate reform in the 1970s, overriding President Gerald Ford’s veto just a few months after Richard Nixon resigned. Baker earnestly filed FOIA request after FOIA request seeking to finally pry out the truth of what happened or didn’t happen all those decades ago on the Korean Peninsula. Godot-like, the definitive answers he sought never came.

Baker’s FOIA requests largely went unanswered for years before they were denied, if they were acknowledged at all. Just to receive letters saying a few of his requests were assigned tracking numbers became a victory of sorts. Only on rare occasions did he obtain documents that had not been available to the like-minded researchers who came before him. Maddeningly, these glimpses of information tended to raise new questions.

Eventually, Baker gave up on learning the truth. Rather than shelve his research project as a failure, he reconceptualized it so that the impediments his efforts encountered themselves became part of the story. Structured as a series of diary entries in which he tells us what he knows for sure about American bioweapons efforts in that era, Baseless allows Baker to highlight that the government is still actively hiding things all these years later and to speculate about what they may be. At the same time, he tries to capture the frustration of growing older as the government runs out the clock on disclosing its secrets while they might still matter to anyone living.

“This is a book about waiting—waiting for responses from the Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency and other places,” he writes. “It’s about my own not entirely successful efforts to squeeze germs of truth from the sanitized documentary record of the U.S. government. It’s about the exquisite pain of whited-out or blacked-out sentences and paragraphs—always the ones you want most to see—and the costs to national self-understanding of delayed disclosure.”

Primarily known for novels like The Mezzanine and The Anthologist as well as for occasional nonfiction like Human Smoke and Double Fold (which decries the destruction of older books and newspapers by libraries as they microfilm or digitize their collections), Baker has given his new book a title that appears to play on several meanings.

“Baseless” echoes the oft-repeated claim by the US government and its defenders that the communist accusations of bioweapons use during the Korean War had no basis. But more concretely, “baseless” is also a reference to something that I did not know before reading this book: In October 1950—a few months after the Soviet-backed North Korean military invaded South Korea and the United States intervened to defend it—a senior Air Force general named Nathan Twining issued a top-secret order to his deputies to initiate action that would make the United States “capable of employing toxic chemical and biological agents and of defending against enemy use of these agents.”

For Baker, this memo might be a clue to what happened during the Korean War. Twining had commanded the planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and as the world war against German and Japanese fascism transitioned into the early Cold War against global communism, Twining became a proponent of developing other types of weapons of mass destruction at a particularly important moment. His memo’s mandate included integrating Air Force capabilities and requirements for biological warfare into war plans and developing tactics to deliver such agents from the air. This directive, Baker reports, citing military files in the National Archives, was initially known by the code name Project Baseless, although the next year it was changed to Project Respondent. (The order was rescinded shortly after the cessation of hostilities.)

The following spring, North Korean and Chinese government officials began accusing the United States of having used biological weapons to spread disease on the peninsula in late 1950 and early 1951. A year later, backed as well by the Soviet Union, communist officials escalated their accusations—which the United States denied, with help from the fact that much of the physical evidence its adversaries put forward, as Baker acknowledges, was dubious. He also notes that the Air Force did not seem to have moved logistical support into the war theater that would have enabled it to carry out the industrial-scale use of bioweapons it was being accused of. There were, he writes, “no teams of trained Air Force germ handlers, no stockpiles of mass-produced weaponry, no large refrigerated lockers to hold perishable agents.”

Nevertheless, as Baker goes through the documents he can access, he develops a theory that something did happen, that America’s communist accusers were not simply making it all up. And he is right that Twining’s Project Baseless memo—showing, as it does, active and high-level consideration of deploying germ bombs just months before the accusations began—is certainly curious.

Baker’s discussion of this memo is just one of many such suggestive curiosities he shakes out of his proverbial research notebook to fill this nearly 400-page book. Most diary entries open with a word about what he says he was doing on that particular day—usually something gentle, like lying in bed, having dinner with his wife, attending a Quaker meeting, or walking through nature with their dogs. Then it pivots swiftly into a deep dive on a particular memo or project from the documentary evidence that has been made available.

Baker mixes in sketches of various creepy scientists who devoted their talents to weaponizing diseases, as well as to potential delivery devices, such as bombs stuffed with infected insects or feathers. As such, Baseless is less a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end than a mosaic that forms a picture as individual tiles are added here and there, gradually accumulating into a detailed history of the United States’ bioweapons research shortly after World War II.

But simply recounting a history of early Cold War American bioweapons research was not, of course, Baker’s original goal: He had set out to prove his hunch that the United States had secretly used some of those weapons on the battlefield, the proof for which he believes resides in the gaps in the documentary record—the files that are still kept locked away and the paragraphs that have been removed from those the government permits the public to see. “Redaction,” Baker writes, is “a form of psychological warfare directed against historians, a way of wearing people down and making them go away.”

As a reporter for The New York Times, I have been a frequent user of the Freedom of Information Act. With help from David McCraw, the newspaper’s lawyer, I have sued the federal government over and over—under administrations of both parties—in an attempt to force it to comply with FOIA and disclose information of public interest. Often, the result has been disappointment: Judges ruled that the documents I sought fell within one of several enumerated exceptions to the law, permitting the government to keep them secret. But sometimes the litigation worked. On certain occasions, after a case was filed and a Justice Department lawyer had to account for an agency’s recalcitrance before a judge, the government chose to turn over the records without further fuss to resolve the litigation, sometimes after a face-saving negotiation to narrow the request. More rarely, a court ordered the federal government to disclose something over its continued objections.

Through this patient and slow boring of holes via the judicial system, one can, as we did, use FOIA to drag things into the public light—secret memos about the targeted killing of an American citizen deemed a terrorist, previously classified files illustrating how post-9/11 National Security Agency surveillance programs skirted legal limits, internal FBI reports demonstrating that the bureau quietly cleared its agents of wrongdoing in at least 150 consecutive intentional shooting incidents over nearly 20 years, and e-mails showing the military’s awkward wrestling with what should happen if an aging detainee at Guantánamo needed lifesaving medical care that the remote naval base couldn’t provide, among many other newsworthy subjects. Through these experiences, I have learned a lesson that does not seem to occur to Baker, despite his years of frustrations: With very few exceptions, simply filing a FOIA request does not work. If one has any hope of extracting a document in a timely fashion, it is necessary to follow up on the request by filing a lawsuit.

Without leveraging the legal system to force the government to comply with the law, FOIA is indeed, as Baker portrays it, useless and toothless. While the law says an information act request must be processed within 20 working days, a backlog of requests clogs the queue, and there are not enough officials assigned to process them. Often the most interesting documents require a review and sign-off by multiple agencies, creating additional opportunities for bureaucratic slow-rolling. Absent litigation, it is routine for years to pass, and the government, if pressed, will claim that a given request has not yet reached the top of the queue. But a lawsuit changes everything. A judge imposes deadlines to respond and, at least in theory, can overrule a bureaucrat who claims things must remain secret without an adequate basis, thereby deterring unjustified delay and overclassification.

But, despite passionately pursuing his research for years and despite deciding to make lemonade out of his sour experience by transforming his failure to get answers into a book that is partly about the shortcomings of FOIA, Baker does not seem to have seriously considered trying litigation. The closest he comes in the book to filing a lawsuit is a passing remark in a section about how he had been waiting for seven years for a particular document that still did not come: “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.”

And so reading this book, much of which consists of creative extrapolations about what American officials might have done 70 years ago, I found myself wondering at this failure of imagination about what he could do. Why didn’t Baker reach out to one of the public interest organizations that provide free legal services to journalists and researchers with a righteous FOIA request and see if they would be interested in taking on his case? How can he publish a book that laments FOIA’s deficiencies—its subtitle is My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act—without doing what is necessary, if not always sufficient, to make that law work? It is as if he bought a car and then complained that it would not run without ever putting gas in its tank.

That said, it should not require litigation to successfully use a tool that an earlier generation of lawmakers created with the intent of enabling Americans broadly to bring to light information about what their government has been up to. And even with a lawsuit, my experience has shown that it is exceedingly difficult to get a judge to second-guess the government’s claim that a document is properly classified. Baker is certainly right about one thing: FOIA is broken.

Is Baker also right about bioweapons during the Korean War? The dispute over whether the US government really deployed weaponized germs in the conflict has been much argued over for generations, and Baker’s book relies heavily on the research of those who came before him—in particular, two Canadian historians, Stephen L. Endicott and Edward Hagerman, whose 1998 book The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets From the Early Cold War and Korea argues that the communist allegations were true. In a review in The New York Times, Ed Regis, the author of another book on America’s germ warfare efforts, criticized Endicott and Hagerman for failing to grapple with the strongest argument against their case: the findings that much of the evidence put forward by the communist regimes was fabricated.

Baker interviewed the two Canadian scholars in 2008 and eventually acquired boxes of their research files—including a military history of the Air Force’s biological weapons program from 1944 to 1951 that contained discussion of the Baseless directive, which Hagerman requested under FOIA in 1996 and was still fighting to finally get processed as late as 2012. Baker contends that they did not deserve the damage to their reputations caused by Regis’s review and by similar reactions from other historians who criticized their efforts. Without going as far as they do in their assertions, Baker clearly sees his efforts as a way to perhaps help vindicate them. He has some advantages, building on their research with additional documents that have become available in the intervening years. He is aided as well by the CIA’s subsequent posting of its old archives online, under pressure from a FOIA lawsuit, which removed major practical impediments to searching through masses of previously declassified historical files.

But Baker is also more careful in letting his readers know about facts that pose a challenge to his theory. He forthrightly acknowledges, for example, the lack of large-scale deployed capabilities and the fabrications of evidence. “The Russians, the North Koreans, and the Chinese all, at times, lied about what they’d found in the snow. That’s just a fact,” he writes, citing a 1953 memo by Russia’s secret police chief about simulating “two false regions of infection” for the purpose of “accusing the Americans of using bacteriological weapons in Korea and China.”

Against that backdrop, Baker’s hypothesis is more modest than those of some of the researchers who came before him. Specifically, he thinks that while the Air Force never operationalized a biological weapons program, there may have been “a small-scale, plausibly deniable” CIA operation “about which we have little so far on paper, but about which we have immense detail, very peculiar detail—perhaps too peculiar to be invented—from the Communists.” He speculates that “the CIA had tried out several germ-warfare experiments in a war zone, first late in 1950, and then in January and February 1952, and the Communists had discovered them almost immediately, launching in response a huge, coordinated propaganda campaign—a campaign that included some faked evidence.”

To that end, Baker also dedicates a considerable part of his book to recounting the various covert assassination attempts and other reckless actions the CIA engaged in during the early Cold War that were unrelated to biological warfare but are marked by a recurring pattern: US officials shamelessly lied about them at the time, but the truth came out eventually. His point in delving into that largely tangential material seems to be that it would be naive to take at face value the indignant denials by US officials of the era that none of those bioweapons were ever used.

Baker also argues that the reason some of the evidence the communists brought forward looked fake was that it was simultaneously fake and real. To discredit the bioweapons charges and demoralize the enemy, he speculates, the CIA may have arranged to drop what appeared to be carriers of disease, such as insects and voles, on North Korea and China—except that they were not infected with any biological agents and were instead a psychological warfare operation intended to deceive. “The North Koreans and the Chinese were telling the truth when they reported the bombs and the insects, it seems to me,” he writes, citing intercepted transmissions that show they were also making these claims internally, “but the Communists didn’t understand that it was primarily a terror weapon they were dealing with, and they exerted themselves to find the taint of disease where it wasn’t.”

In other words, Baker thinks that after the United States carried out a few limited but real tests of germ warfare, it followed that act by dropping inert materials that created the appearance of a more widespread campaign. That prompted an extensive search for bioweapons by communist forces—one that, after failing to turn up hard proof, led them to fabricate evidence. Reading this theory, I was reminded of the tangle that emerged from the notorious O.J. Simpson murder investigation and trial. One way to make sense of the clashing narratives and evidence was that it could be simultaneously true that Simpson murdered his ex-wife and her friend and that a police detective planted false evidence in a misguided and corrupt bid to ensure that a righteous case would hold up in court—in essence, framing a guilty man.

It’s an intriguing thesis, and Baker is usually careful not to go too far in putting it forward, leavening his analysis with regular signs that he doesn’t really know whether there is anything to this, such as a sentence that begins “I think maybe.” But in some places, he undercuts the persuasiveness of his analytical judgment by revealing that he is prone to see conspiracies all over the place, such as when he casually asserts at one point that “rabbit fever, Q fever, bird flu, Lyme disease, wheat stem rust, African swine fever, and hog cholera all look, to my nonscientist’s eye, like unnatural epidemics that owe their outbreaks to the laboratory” rather than to nature. (He speculates that these diseases generally got out of labs by accident, not that they were deliberate attacks.)

Despite such occasional lapses of self-awareness, Baker the person, interesting and imperfect as are we all in our own ways, rises from the pages of Baseless with a generally firm understanding that he has produced a very strange book. “I lay in bed some of today reading more of this book, hating it, excited by it, embarrassed by it,” he writes toward the end of Baseless, adding of his theory, “You may not be convinced, but that’s okay. My aim is to open the files, not necessarily to convince.”

That is the thought that fuses Baker’s original project, an intended exposé about what happened with germs and insects during the Korean War, to the lamentation about the frustrating shortcomings of FOIA that it morphed into. For Baker, ultimately what we need is far more transparency—a system that better enables Americans to drag information about their government into the light. After recounting how Hagerman lost a protracted battle to get censored passages restored to a certain perhaps (or perhaps not) key document, he describes how he renewed Hagerman’s request but heard nothing back after two years. “What happened, I think,” Baker writes, “was that the redacteur whited out any paragraph in the document that connected events in the Far East with the Air Force’s development program for biological warfare. I could be completely wrong. The only way to prove me wrong is by declassifying the entire document.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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