My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act
By Nicholson Baker
This has been a hard season for truth. Between the disinformation surrounding the coronavirus, Russian bots on the internet, police cover-ups of excessive force applied to unarmed civilians and the regular torrent of lies emanating from the White House, objective reality seems to be fading before our eyes.
Nicholson Baker (no relation) now weighs in with “Baseless,” an account of his efforts to pry old secrets out of the C.I.A. through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), in the service of truth. Unfortunately, he only adds to the ball of confusion that is our world today.
“Baseless” evolved from a seven-year quest by Baker to obtain classified Air Force memos on a secret government program called “Project Baseless,” which he thinks might reveal whether or not the United States used biological weapons during the Korean War. (The North Koreans claimed we did.) The pursuit becomes part of the story, as Baker exposes how the C.I.A. and the United States military have gutted much of FOIA one redaction at a time, stalling for years on releasing documents and trying to rebury what has been exposed already. Along the way, he dredges up many of the “nasty, ugly, wrong things” done by intelligence agencies and the military in our name, especially during the Cold War era.
Baker’s proposed policy solutions, including a vast increase in declassification and transparency, and the termination of the C.I.A. as we know it, are all to the good. The crimes the agency committed during the Cold War, particularly in Latin America — subverting elections, running death squads and coups, even destroying food sources — are some of the worst things this country has ever done.
Yet too often, Baker’s search for the truth dissolves in his own prejudices and rampaging sense of moral superiority. “Baseless” is framed as a work diary he kept for three months in 2019, in which we are also treated to tidbits about his children, his wife, the two small dachshunds they adopted from the Humane Society in Bangor, Maine; the weather; what he’s eating — potatoes, a granola bar, bean soup, yellow lentils and ginger, noodles, “a baked good from the cafeteria” and “a crunchy baked good”; as well as any number of grating maxims. (“Be a leaf tumbling and leaping around a gravestone. Don’t be a gravestone.”)
Baker is making a case for himself as a man of small and virtuous pleasures. He goes to a Quaker meeting. He loves his wife and the warmth of her body in bed. He loves the feel of a paw in his hand, the smell of a laundry detergent that reminds him of his son.
By contrast, our leading Cold War wise men, with their “deep crazy suspicions and enmities,” are “not normal people.” Baker can be slashingly funny about this “tiny handful of unelected desk warriors,” middle-aged men reveling in “a form of treehouse, boy’s-club, prep-school ugliness” and their “power to wage political war via cablegram in a suit and tie, and drop hints to newspaper columnists over cocktails in a Georgetown living room that same night.”
Yet Baker smears even the likes of this establishment with what he chooses to “redact” on his own. His distortions, speculations and omissions outstrip any effort to note them all. Suffice it to say that in his view there is not a calamity anywhere in the world that was not caused by a United States government program. Baker wonders “idly and perhaps unfairly” whether a 1920s Department of Agriculture effort to eradicate barberry bush didn’t make the Dust Bowl worse. (It didn’t.) And he muses that “Rabbit fever, Q fever, bird flu, Lyme tick 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” — an American laboratory, that is.
To my nonscientist’s eye. Similar caveats — “we may never have incontrovertible proof,” “it’s remotely possible, though perhaps eternally unprovable,” “we may never know,” “it’s at least possible,” “will we ever know?,” “let me just blurt out what I think happened,” etc. — infest Baker’s narrative, usually preceded or followed by wild accusations (and, occasionally, by a sign of self-awareness: “I lay in bed some of today reading more of this book, hating it, excited by it, embarrassed by it”).
At times, the book is framed as a deliberate challenge to the intelligence community: “I could be completely wrong. The only way to prove me wrong is by declassifying the entire document.” But this is not how a historian proceeds. Again and again, Baker bristles with anger over actions that were “seriously contemplated” by the C.I.A., other intelligence agencies and the military — but never undertaken. “I felt trembly and disgusted at the same time,” he writes of Operation Sphinx, a proposal to gas millions of Japanese from the air during World War II. “It’s a horrible and disillusioning thing to know that your own country was passing around a paper like Sphinx in the Pentagon.” Really? To know that in a brutal war men thought brutal things?
At another point, he questions the “long, interesting, confusing letter” he got from Floyd O’Neal, one of some 30 captured American airmen and Marines who “confessed” to germ-warfare bombing in Korea. O’Neal’s confession is “surprising and moving, though, whether or not it’s true,” Baker tells us. O’Neal “recanted completely” after he was released, and writes in his letter of sustaining torture so awful he still won’t describe it to Baker more than 50 years later: “What they did for the next days I don’t care to discuss but I finally agreed to sign their confession.” There is nothing surprising or moving about a coerced confession, save for O’Neal’s ability to endure the price it exacted.
Baker concedes that “Americans individually have done good things,” a gesture followed by a banal list that includes “sunglasses,” “topiary,” “no-hitters” and “the midcentury New Yorker.” Yes, and also little baby ducks and old pickup trucks. This is another affectation of virtue, not a moral argument.
I share Baker’s disgust with all the crazy, wasteful, illegal, counterproductive and murderous things the C.I.A. has done, and no doubt continues to do. Hell, I even like dogs. Baker’s Olympian worldview, though, takes him to almost the same place he landed in “Human Smoke,” his paste-up 2008 history of the road to World War II: immobilized by purity and concluding that we should never have intervened, even to stop the Nazis. Americans are neither beasts nor angels, just human beings trying to forge our way through the murky moral choices this world poses. To pretend otherwise is perhaps the worst deception of all.