This article is part of a series called “How to Human,” interviews with memoirists that explore how we tackle life’s alarms, marvels and bombshells.
A few years ago, Nicholson Baker was doing research for his book about the destruction of newspapers by libraries — in a library — when he came upon a book about America’s use of biological weapons. The authors of the book spent years trying to prove that the United States had conducted biological warfare during the Korean War, including the dropping of insects tainted by disease. It was all horrifying stuff not taught in history class, and Baker was shocked.
How could it be that the United States was doing such terrible things? It’s the question that drove him to research and write “Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act,” which comes out Tuesday.
Researching the book sent him into a warren of government tunnels in search of documents that proved America was guilty of developing and using biological weapons. He used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire such documents, but the government wasn’t always compliant in getting them back to him. Indeed he received many pieces of paper with redacted words, sentences and paragraphs, sometimes in black rectangles, other times in white, depending on the government agency’s preference. This led him to file more FOIA requests in which he’d ask for the redacted words to be revealed.
He still has FOIAs out there waiting to be returned to him, and he could be waiting decades more. Since life moves a lot faster than the government, Baker found a way to tell the story now. He decided to keep a diary in which he could spend several weeks writing what he learned. Isn’t that what historians do? They sit down to write what they know based off of the evidence they have on hand.
In the end, he is now on a quixotic mission, hoping the government will declassify everything older than 50 years old. He believes, “If we could learn from our mistakes and our successes, then I think we can maybe move forward about things that are happening right now.”
HuiffPost spoke with Baker via a Google Hangout and FaceTime earlier in July. This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
Would you describe what FOIA is and how it came to be?
FOIA [pronounced “FOY-a”] stands for the Freedom of Information Act, and it’s a glorious law that took a long time to come into being. It was something dreamed up by congressman John Moss. He had this idea in the middle of the 1950s that there was too much that was happening in the federal government that was not knowable. You can’t have consent of the governed unless the governed know what’s actually happening.
He started this long process, and he had hearings, and he had resistance. The Justice Department didn’t like the idea and the newspapers did like the idea. It took him 10 years, and finally in 1965 this act came in. It said that anybody can ask to see anything; they have to put it in writing, and then in 20 days, that particular agency has to give some kind of response.
“If we could learn from our mistakes and our successes, then I think we can maybe move forward about things that are happening right now.”
It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and he did not want to sign it, but it had to be signed. It had some ups and downs; there was a moment where it was very powerful, where suddenly it dislodged a lot of things that had happened in the ’50s. Suddenly people thought, “Oh my God, you did that?” Then the Reagan administration changed the rules radically, and said that the CIA’s “operational files” — this was specifically about the CIA — were going to be off limits. That meant basically all the stuff that is actually interesting that the CIA does, you weren’t going to be able to learn anything about it. Operations just means secret, sneaky, clandestine things that people do in other countries, that kind of thing.
There’s been ups and downs over the years, and gradually it’s gotten harder and harder to get things from federal agencies. Basically what’s happened is that government agencies want to shield themselves from scrutiny.
I fully understand that, they want some privacy to do whatever they want to do. What is driving this book is that they want to keep private, keep secret stuff that happened 60 or 70 years ago, so long ago that it’s of historical interest and importance, but cannot possibly affect national security.
What was your goal for this book?
It took a lot of work to write this book; I put my heart and soul and liver and onions into it, and I’m just hoping that it could lead to a kind of decision, a blanket decision to declassify everything that’s over 50 years — everything, just everything.
Just let people see what the government was doing, at least that. That’s the beginning, because if we could learn from our mistakes and our successes, then I think we can maybe move forward about things that are happening right now.
Toward the end of your book you describe a deep frustration in one of your diary entries, and you say you want to sue the American government, that if you could be armed with $20 million, you’d be able to open everything up.
Yeah, I have these fantasies. I successfully, oddly enough, sued the San Francisco Public Library, because they didn’t want to release the list of the books that they’d gotten rid of. They got rid of about a quarter of a million books when they moved to a new library, and the librarians came to me and said that this was a really strange, secret thing that happened. I put in a Freedom of Information request, and they said no, so I then found a lawyer, a Freedom of Information lawyer who did it pro bono, and they released the list.
I just think that it would be so great to sue the federal government and then use $20 million to scan everything that was released to the National Archives. Everything older than 50 years, just start scanning it and do it. It actually would be a nice employment project because you’d have people coming in. It would be a WPA kind of effort to say, “We’re going to be able to look at our own country’s history.”
Could you describe the main theme of the book, and what you were trying to uncover?
There are two things that interested me. One was I wanted to know what happened in a fraught time in the past, so there’s that, but then I also wanted to know how people actually truthfully think about history. That’s why I wrote it as a diary. When you get up in the morning and you’re trying to write the history of anything, maybe it’s of the Bronx in 1910 or something, you also have to eat a bowl of cereal and talk to your wife or husband, or students if you’re a teacher, I mean, you have a whole life.
What was the spark that made you want to go looking for biological warfare?
It came out of the book I wrote about libraries. I was at the University of New Hampshire library; I was in the middle of writing this book about the fact that there had been a complete clean-out of beautiful newspapers and a replacement of them with microfilm, and there was this book on the shelf that was by these two guys, Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, and it had a pink fly on the cover — it was really kind of a lurid cover: it said, “The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea.”
Now, I don’t know anything about that at this point. I’m standing there, I pull the thing down, thinking, “Well, I’ve been reading about all this weird Cold War stuff in connection with this library, so let me just get a little bit up to speed on the Cold War.” I started looking at it, and there were lists of the diseases that the United States government thought were important to study and to intensify and to find ways to put into bombs and figure out how to make them more virulent.
I was really troubled, but also then I saw on this list, it was this list of diseases, and one of them was coccidioidomycosis, which is a very long word that I still don’t really know how to spell. My grandfather was a pathologist and he studied coccidioidomycosis because it’s a fungal disease, and he was a fungal disease pathologist and thought, “By God, I know that disease.” I cannot believe that the American military wants to make people sick with this horrible disease that gets in people’s lungs and gives them lesions, it’s a very slow-acting disease.
I just thought I want to know more about this. I read this book, and I liked these guys on paper. They had managed to declassify huge amounts of stuff, because it was in a sort of golden age of declassification in the ’80s, and I just thought, “They have done a real service to American history to open it all up.” I started reading reviews of their books, and the reviews were savage. It was amazing, they said it was shoddy scholarship, that these people have besmirched the historical profession, and their claim was that there was a gigantic germ warfare development program that was paid for by the Army and the Air Force, and that possibly the Americans had done what the Chinese and North Koreans said, and actually had dropped disease weapons on them.
That was the controversial thing. Most of the book is about the machinery of weapons research, and they do a beautiful job of that, and it’s fascinating. What people didn’t like was the idea that these two men from Canada were charging that the United States had actually done this.
Anyway, I wrote a bunch of different books, and somewhere along the way I thought, “I really want to just really get to the bottom of this story,” because the two of them seemed a little bit like wounded men. They had worked on a book for close to 10 years, and it came out and every single person trashed it. I thought, “That’s not fair. This book is a piece of institutional history of something.” I just thought I would try to find out what actually happened, and I did.
“All of these people I admire tremendously because they just kept asking and kept asking and kept insisting until they got something. What they got was enormously valuable.”
When you write about some of your FOIA heroes in the book, it’s almost like you’re a sports fan the way you revere them. Could you talk about who are your heroes in that department and what kind of impact they’ve had on society?
The FOIA victory — a tremendous, huge, ticker-tape parade kind of victory — that nobody really knows about was one that just happened fairly recently. It has a long set of people involved, but it basically comes down to MuckRock, a very small, hardy band of really nice people for one thing, but who have set up this mechanism for asking for government documents using their website.
They made a request through a lawyer named Kel McClanahan, who is a very articulate, almost professorial kind of lawyer. But they requested from the CIA to have every bit of this digital database called the CREST database that just stands for CIA Records Search Tool.
The CREST database used to reside only in the National Archives in this one room; they had these four chairs, and it was a completely air gap, super secure cluster of terminals. And there was surveillance and your every keystroke was recorded. This CREST database, mind you, was completely what they call “sanitized,” meaning that the documents had all already been redacted. But in order to use the database, you had to physically go to College Park, Maryland, and sit in this room.
It was really a way of keeping historians from learning about the past. So [MuckRock] said, “Give us the whole thing in electronic form. We don’t want paper. Just give us the whole thing. It’s all been declassified. So we’re not asking for you to declassify anything further, just give it to us.”
And [the CIA] said, “No, that would be burdensome” and refused because it’s classified material. So this giant collection of declassified materials suddenly becomes classified material. That didn’t make any sense, so the lawyer brought suit and there was this tremendous back and forth where the CIA said it was going to take — I think they first said it was going to take 28 years to go through this collection — and then they thought about it and said, “No, no, it’ll only take six years,” or something like that.
Finally this ex-CIA employee, whom I interviewed, got into it. He’d had a rough time with the CIA, because he’d asked while he was [still] employed by the CIA for something controlled by the CIA — not a good idea. So he testified that the whole thing could be put on an external $60 Staples drive and the whole process would take a day.
When he did that, the CIA just folded. And suddenly, I don’t know if it’s millions of pages, it’s an enormous horde of stuff, became publicly available to anyone in the world. This happened in 2017. So just as I was sort of embroiled in one version of this book, a version that failed, suddenly I’m typing. I’m looking up keywords on the CIA’s own website, thinking I should check it, and the words like “BW,” which stands for biological warfare, or specific diseases, brucellosis and stuff. And suddenly, instead of there being no hits, it suddenly would be lots of hits for crop diseases in the Soviet Union and all kinds of stuff. The thing that was mind-blowing was one of the set of hits was Korean War records, the agency that was the precursor to the National Security Agency.
So all of these people I admire tremendously because they just kept asking and kept asking and kept insisting until they got something. What they got was enormously valuable.
I wonder with everything being shut down, what’s going to happen with the backlog of FOIA requests and what the government could be doing to make more documents available digitally.
I think one of the things that really should happen is that the National Archives’ budget should go up and there should be a more concerted effort to scan a lot of documents. Not throwing away the original documents, of course, but the dream would be that all of World War II records would be scanned and digitally searchable immediately in all kinds of ways we can’t even predict.
Our understanding of World War II would be enriched because we would know things about people that are just unfindable, and we would make connections between things. Or World War I, which is really a fascinating era, or the 20s, my God, or the prohibition, all of that. All of that is just waiting to be opened up.