cover image Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act

Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act

Nicholson Baker. Penguin Press, $30 (464p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1575-7

America’s biological warfare programs are the focus of epic struggles for transparency in this mordant exposé. Novelist and historian Baker (Substitute) recounts his years-long investigation into U.S. Air Force, Army, and CIA projects during the 1940s and 1950s, including efforts to weaponize bubonic plague– and yellow fever–infected mosquitoes; feather bombs that dispersed turkey plumage dusted with crop-ruining plant pathogens; and a germ-warfare experiment that fogged San Francisco with bacteria. Controversially, he argues that biological weapons were used by the U.S. in the Korean War to spread lethal Korean hemorrhagic fever to Communist soldiers. Baker documents his quest to prove that thesis by obtaining military and intelligence documents through Freedom of Information Act requests, which proves a Kafkaesque ordeal of endless waiting for heavily censored reports. (There’s no smoking gun, but his supporting evidence is substantial.) Written with bemused fascination and occasional outrage (“What a pointless horror,” Baker observes of a study that infected guinea pigs with brucellosis), this lucid yet freewheeling narrative unearths much queasy detail about biological weapons and their promoters. The result is a colorful, engrossing recreation of a sinister history—and a convincing case for opening government archives to public scrutiny. Agent: Melanie Jackson, the Melanie Jackson Agency. (July)