“Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act” by Nicholson Baker; Penguin Press, New York, 2020; 464 pages, hardcover, $30.

“Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act” is the product of Nicholson Baker’s 10-year effort to answer the question: Did the United States ever use biological weapons against its enemies?

Baker, the mild-mannered reporter and novelist who lives in or near Bangor, titled his book after the U.S. Air Force’s Korean War-era program “Project Baseless,” whose aim was “to achieve ‘an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare.’” It turns out that not only the Air Force, but seemingly every nook of the U.S. military concerned with covert Cold War activities were interested in developing biological and/or chemical weapons and delivery systems. The question, Baker makes clear, is not whether such weapons existed, but whether they were used.

Finding an answer to this question proved to be hopelessly tangled. The repositories of the documents that should tell the story, such as the National Security Archives and the Library of Congress, are so permeated with decades of secrecy practices that they are, despite the vaunted and widely disregarded Freedom of Information Act, more like a Kafka’s castle of unavailable, redacted and access-stonewalled documents. Ten years and piles of unanswered or unacted-upon FOIA requests later, Baker gave up trying to work out a conventional book-length narrative and wrote up what he had in the form of a diary spanning March to May 2019.

Each day’s entry contains information that falls roughly into one of three categories: 1. information about biological warfare (BW) programs of the U.S.; 2. information about the people in the programs; 3. the immense and various difficulties of finding the information. (There is a fourth rail in these entries, too, which other reviewers have complained about but which I found to be fresh air, because almost everything else in the book is insanely depressing: short passages describing Nicholson’s tranquil home life with his wife and dogs in, or near, Bangor.)

Every page reveals facts about BW so crazy you can barely believe your own reading eyes. Documents show that research programs involving plague, cholera, anthrax, botulin and Songo fever (which has symptoms similar to Ebola) were all researched for possible use on humans. Poisons and diseases for destroying agricultural crops on large scale were researched. Delivery systems were experimented with, from aerosols to insects to turkey feathers dusted with bacteria, then to be dropped in the same bombs used to distribute propaganda leaflets. The systems were secretly tested on San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Florida’s coast, sickening people in the process.

Mysterious outbreaks of diseases with effects exactly matching the effects of some of the researched crop diseases occurred in places like Hungary and Romania. In the 1950s and ’60s China, North Korea and Cuba claimed the U.S. was responsible for outbreaks there. The U.S. vigorously denied the allegations.

The list of people who knew about and encouraged BW capability is long and sometimes startling. Military R&D wizard Vannevar Bush and aviator hero Jimmy Doolittle, to name just two. A number of journalists, including Seymour Hersh in the 1980s, picked at the Gordian knots of documents concerning BW, and Baker frequently acknowledges their work, even getting direct help from some. He appreciates the well-meaning assistance he received from administratively handcuffed people in government libraries. He admits with stoic regret at one point, “in the 1950s, the Library of Congress secretly became a military intelligence agency.” Seven decades later, the wake of the governmental secrecy ethos built up in the Cold War years remains. The Freedom of Information Act, Baker indicates, gets you only so far, and often nowhere.

“Baseless” is a fascinating and horrifying dive into the mostly undisentanglable, incomplete morass of information and disinformation surrounding BW weapons and programs. It is not definitively known whether we ever used them against our enemies.

Nicholson Baker is the author of novels such as “The Mezzanine” and “Room Temperature,” and nonfiction books such as “Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization,” among others. He wrote those books while he was living in South Berwick. Now he seems to live in Bangor. Though I can’t find anything that says so definitively.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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