I have finished reading a book called Baseless written by American writer Nicholson Baker. In it he replays his lengthy and mostly fruitless attempt to wrestle information about the past from the CIA and American military.
In 2009, Baker wrote to the national archives requesting copies of twenty-one classified documents. What did he want to know? A simple question, he says. Did the United States use biological weapons during the early 1950s against its enemies?
Redaction and slow walking
For ten years, Baker dealt with a records’ bureaucracy which denied access to most documents; which blacked so much that what remained on the page made little sense; and which “slow-walked” his requests by being glacially slow to respond.
“Redaction,” Baker wrote in his book, “is a slow form of psychological warfare directed against historians, a way of wearing people down and making them go away.”
Fearing he might never get the information he sought, Baker decided to start writing. Rather than ditch his project, he rejigged it to incorporate his futile search as the plot line for his book. He does this by keeping a diary about his activity for two months in the spring of 2019. While writing about his latest non-response from the bureaucracy, he tells you about his dogs, his wife, and the weather in Maine where he lives. The sub-title of his book describes his project well: “My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Baker did discover that there was a top-secret project called Baseless, initiated according to military records in 1950, to have the US military create programs to achieve “an Air force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” This involved an array of research projects in which insects and plant agents were developed with a capacity to destroy crops and harm people. Not long after, the North Korean and Chinese governments began to accuse the US military of having used biological weapons to spread disease on the Korean peninsula. The US government, its military officials and diplomats were scathing in their denunciations of what they described as communist propaganda.
Baker was able to establish that the biological weapons programs did exist, and that there was also a carefully planned campaign of what has come to be known as “plausible deniability.” But the central question in the book is whether the US used any of the weapons that it had created.
Much to his frustration, Baker is unable to answer that question, even after all his years of chasing down files. He can provide only circumstantial evidence and best guesses. As one reviewer of the book wrote, “Godot-like, the definitive answers he sought never came.”
Archives to-do list
Baker had to settle for a description of how the Freedom of Information Act is manipulated by state departments and agencies intent on maintaining secrecy. He makes the entirely legitimate point that the government has no business withholding information from its citizens about what it did, seventy years ago in this case.
He provides a brief to-do list which would make information more available to the citizenry that owns it. Double the budget of the national archives so that it can process the mountains of records which it holds. Give a quasi-independent group within the national archives the unilateral power to declassify all documents older than thirty years, without first having to send them back to the originating agencies for slow review and redaction. Finally, automatically declassify any document that is more than fifty years old. No exceptions.
These proposals resonate deeply with me, as they will with other writers, researchers, and historians in Canada. Baker’s three-point plan to open the national archives in the US applies just as readily in Canada. As I will describe in an upcoming post, the Access to Information regime in Canada is at least as secretive and deliberately glacial in its pace as that in the US.