Web Essays

Beyond Classification

One writer’s journey into the labyrinth of political and bureaucratic obfuscation

By Michael Sherry | July 23, 2020
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr/thomashawk)
The National Archives building in Washington, D.C. (Thomas Hawk/Flickr/thomashawk)

Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act by Nicholson Baker; Penguin Press, 464 pp., $30

If we’re lucky, by the time you read this book, the COVID-19 pandemic will have started to abate. I read Baseless in March, just as I was coming down with a mild case of the virus, and Nicholson Baker’s tale of U.S. experiments with plague-carrying bugs and crop-killing viruses collided jarringly with the news. Writing before the advent of COVID-19, he could hardly have made a connection between the pandemic and those experiments. Still, I can’t help thinking that some hidden, squiggly line connects them.

Nicholson, a prolific writer and determined pacifist, offers a double thriller of sorts, artfully weaving together two distinct stories. One details the U.S. government’s development of biological and chemical weapons, and their possible use by American forces during the Korean War—as North Korean and Chinese Communist officials furiously claimed, and which their U.S counterparts denied so indignantly as to raise suspicions. The second is about the efforts, by Baker and others, to get at the official records—the truth—of the matter: a many-decades story of political and bureaucratic obfuscation, dishonesty, delay, and incompetence, especially on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency. This second narrative goes into the weeds of the official mechanisms that hide or destroy documents from 50, 60, and even 70 years ago.

Baker is an engaging writer, and Baseless is a gripping book, but not an easy read. You may get whiplash as each of the short chapters starts in the near-present and then shoots off into the past, hopping and skipping through time rather than preceding in linear fashion, except insofar as Baker provides a date for when he wrote each chapter. He acknowledges the difficulty of the story he labors to tell: “My mind can’t hold all at the same time, so many countries, so many diseases, so many bombs and cluster adapters. Lieutenants, majors, captains, brigadier generals, temporary colonels. Whiskey colonels.” Readers, too, will struggle with the tsunami of names, agencies, and secrets in his account—at least until they realize that they don’t need to track the details closely: it’s the drip-drip-drip of it all that matters, not the specifics.

This is an account of late-stage American empire in its long, feverish ascent and decline, when it gained the capacity (and the will) to do much for reasons that seem nebulous or nefarious. As Baker puts it: “Stir things up. General disorder. Sabotage. We have nothing to lose. This is the basic CIA model of covert international relations that the United States has been following since 1948: sponsor disorder in order to impose a new order. It has never worked.”

Given Baker’s fury, in his conclusions he is surprisingly measured and sensible about U.S. action during the Korean War—conclusions that he acknowledges rest on partial, confusing, and sometimes coded evidence. U.S. forces (the CIA, the Air Force, and the Army in various haphazard and shifting collaborations) probably did use chemical and biological weapons in Korea. Not in the massive genocidal attacks that communists alleged, but in efforts to try out their new capabilities, to see what might work, and to frighten or distract. And when the North Koreans and Chinese lodged overblown accusations, the U.S. government could use them as evidence that its enemies were madly and dangerously deranged. “The Americans got away with a relatively small, covert effort,” Baker concludes. Far more death and destruction came through other means that were not secret. “Napalm firebombs were the horror weapons of the Korea War.”

Much of the effort at chemical and biological warfare went toward killing crops, not people, except to starve them. “Feather bombs” containing wheat rust spores or other contaminants, tested on American farms before dispatch abroad, were a favorite. It took a lot of work to develop, manufacture, and test such things, to distribute them in the field, and to unleash them effectively and secretly. The work, especially that having to do with anthrax, was often dangerous. Scientists at leading universities and private companies lent a hand, and Baker heaps contempt on most of those involved. Regarding General James Doolittle, for example, hero of a famous 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo and a postwar Standard Oil Company executive and CIA adviser, Baker writes: “He’s an awful man. Truly. An urban terrorist firebomber, an advocate of covert illegal subversion, and a would-be spreader of disease.”

On the secrecy and destruction of records, Baker’s fury never dims. He recounts the decades he and others spent trying to pry records loose, a process he carefully tracks in copious, detailed endnotes. The foundational Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966 and strengthened in 1974, has been dumbed down, subverted, twisted by officials, and diminished by court rulings and an indifferent Congress. The 1970s were its heyday: I recall being led by smart, corner-cutting archivists to still-secret records about the American bombing of Japan in the stacks of the National Archives building, records then declassified for my use without having to go through the Freedom of Information Act system.

Now, precisely when such records should be more accessible than ever, thanks to digitization, they are becoming more hidden. It can take years or decades for a request to get even a response, let alone a substantive disclosure. In part, the delays are related to processing (the National Archives and Records Administration is perennially underfunded), but they stem even more from CIA and military resistance to relinquishing control over official secrets. “The CIA and the Air Force spend a ludicrous amount of time whiting out paragraphs on very old historical documents about long-ago plans for long ago wars. It’s just a way of slowing down revelations about shriveled horrors until they are so lost in the past that their power to shock is muffled by soft winding sheets of time,” Baker writes. Even records once open to researchers, some of them widely disseminated, get reclassified as secret.

A sense of futility about reversing that outcome overcomes Baker. Undoubtedly, in the time since he finished the book (his last entry is dated May 18, 2019), another year of the Trump administration has made him even more despairing. “Every government document that’s more than fifty years old,” he writes, “should be declassified in full, right now. As a first step.”

Fat chance of that happening.

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