A Maine Author's Quest To Pry The Lid Off Old Government Secrets 'Still Being Kept'

Jul 28, 2020

Credit Penguin Press

In a new book, Maine author Nicholson Baker describes a nearly decade-long quest to learn about secret CIA activities in the years after World War II. The book's title is "Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act." Baker, who will be a guest on Tuesday's Maine Calling program spoke with Maine Public's Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz.

Gratz: Good morning, sir.
 
Baker: Good morning, good morning.

So what was it you were trying to investigate?

I guess I was investigating two things - that is, some things that happened a long time ago, and then there's some things that are happening right now. The things that happened a long time ago was that various Pentagon groups and the CIA were making advanced biological and chemical weapons, and I wanted to know more about that. And it was over 70 years ago. And right now, the secrets about what was going on then are still being kept. And the problem is that we need to know what happened a long time ago, so we don't make the same mistakes again.

And I want to say something about this book. It's a diary. So it's about me kind of wandering through my daily life, but also in an office that's just filled with boxes of declassified documents. So it's kind of a case study in how people figure things out.

Well, as journalists know well, if you want to find out about things the government is doing, you can usually use the federal Freedom of Information Act. Was that useful to you?

It's useful in that it's kind of an inspiring idea. The idea that Congressman John Moss got put into law in 1965 was that anybody in the world could ask the U.S. government for information, and the U.S. government was obliged to turn it over, unless it had some sort of security exclusion. But gradually, the law has been kind of corroded and broken in certain ways, and then repaired and broken again. So now it's really hard to use it. But what I wanted to do is find out, specifically, what can I get using this law? And also, what can I find out if I have to work around the law? How do you do history is basically the question.

What were some good sources of information?

The best source of information, I think, is the medium-sized American newspaper. I mean, my first stop after I had a question about some secret briefing in Washington between some people in the chemical warfare service or something and a couple of senators and congressmen:  Look it up in the newspaper.

Can you describe for us briefly one of the things you did unearth in your research?

One of them is this program that was a whole huge plan, a desire to win the coming war with the Soviet Union - this was in the early 50s - by destroying the Soviet wheat crop, by starving Russia. And they were going to do it using balloons. And the gondolas of the balloons were going to be these vessels holding wheat stem rust, which was a fungal disease of wheat. And they tested the balloons and they harvested the fungal disease in great quantities. For more than a decade, they studied ways to starve the Soviet Union by destroying their wheat crop. And that's just a weird thing. The final twist on it for me was when they were first harvesting all this tiny little fungal wheats spores, there was immediately after all this work that they were doing the biggest wheat stem rust epidemic in the United States that had ever happened. The question that obviously arises: Is this a consequence of science or not? And it's not determined. But it's very strange because all the scientists who were studying the outbreak of the disease, many of them were also on contract as germ warriors with the federal government.

Did you ever get a sense of how much money in terms of resources the U.S. spent on this effort?

I don't even think the dollar amount is significant. What is significant is that the number of people - of American scientists - that were pulled into this program was doubled or tripled over from, let's say, 1948 to the mid 1950s.

To kind of wrap this back up where we started, what are some of the things Congress, perhaps, should do with the federal Freedom of Information Act that would make it easier to ferret out information like this, and/or to confirm information like this?
 
Double the funding of the National Archives, because they don't have enough people to deal with the history of the United States. That's one thing. Secondly, all documents that are older than 50 years should be declassified completely - no blackouts, no white outs, nothing. Just let us know what happened a long time ago. I understand that governments have to have secrets in the current moment when they're doing whatever sneaky things they're doing. But secrets about what the Truman administration did 70 years ago, or what happened in World War II - there's so many documents classified there. That's ridiculous because we need to know. That's part of the First Amendment - you need to be able to know what your government is doing in order to speak freely about what needs to change.
 
Nicholson Baker - his latest book is entitled "Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act." You can learn more, and pose your own questions to him, on Maine Calling Tuesday afternoon 1 p.m.

Thank you, sir. Appreciate the time.

Thank you, Irwin.