Eleven years ago, in 2009, the American writer Nicholson Baker had a question: Did the United States use biological weapons on foreign countries it viewed as enemies during the early 1950s?
He set out to find an answer. In 2012, he made a series of requests (under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, which has been around since 1966) for once-classified documents pertaining to Project Baseless, a highest-priority biological and chemical warfare program backed by the Pentagon and the Air Force during the Korean War. The memos had been languishing in an inaccessible government archive for more than 60 years.
Today, eight years later, with the United States gripped in post-election turmoil and reeling from the aftereffects of a divisive Trump presidency, Baker’s still waiting for his documents.
But this is the pathologically curious Nick Baker, the brainy and renowned author of 10 ground-breaking novels and six equally original works of non-fiction. While he waited, he started reading old newspapers and scientific journals, rummaging through archives and libraries and submitting other FOIA requests, to find out what he could about government-sponsored germ warfare programs.
At first he “loved the quest,” its endlessness and detail, the way “formerly dull-seeming tidbits of history glowed like fresh cherry tomatoes in the picnic salad of the 20th century." He discovered long-hidden plans to bring starvation and pestilence to Korea, China, Nicaragua, the USSR and other countries; to infect foreign herds and crops and even people via air-dropped spiders and voles, and flies and feathers tainted with cholera, anthrax, smallpox, plague and typhus, to name but a few scourges involved. Canada wasn’t ignored: in 1950, Dale Jenkins, the chief of entomology at the CIA’s bio-warfare testing lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland, whose larger plan was to introduce yellow fever to Asia via insects, released three million radioactive mosquitos from an American Air Force base near Churchill, Man. They recovered 141 of them. (“The other 2,999,859 wandered off,” Baker writes.)
During the years he waited for a reply from the Air Force, Baker wrote two novels, a book of essays and a fourth about being a substitute teacher. By then he was good and frustrated. “I began to suspect that although I’d learned a fair amount about the Cold War – in fact, I knew some possibly startling things that nobody else knew – I might grow old and die without seeing extant memos and plans that were material to the basic question I was trying to answer.”
He eventually abandoned an effort to tell the germ warfare story chronologically, in favour of a diary he kept between March and May, 2019, as he dug through mountains of notes. Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act was published earlier this year. Baker spoke to the Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown from his home in Bangor, Me.
Brown: How did you get caught up in this project?
Baker: [Long pause.] The book started really with my reading a book by two gentlemen at York University in Toronto, Edward Hagerman and Stephen Endicott, about the possibility that the United States experimented with germ weapons in the Korean War. I was very impressed by their book, even though it had been savagely treated in the press. And I got to know them and liked them, went up and interviewed them. So it began in this slow way. Eventually, in 2012, I made a number of Freedom of Information Act requests myself. The book in some ways was written as a kind of thank you to two historians who helped me understand my own country’s history.
Brown: Was there a simple question in your Freedom of Information Act request?
Baker: I wasn’t asking a big question like “Send me everything that you have in your files on such-and-such a topic.” I was saying, “here is a list of specific memos that I know exist because I’ve seen the pieces of paper [in the archives] saying ‘File Removed.’ And I know who the memo was to and who it was from and the date of it. And I’d just like to read the memo.” Most of them were from 1951, 1952.
All they had to do was go to the National Archives and call out that box and make a copy of it and send it to me. But that is not possible. The box is not actually controlled by the National Archives. It’s controlled by the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Air Force does not want to give up any secrets. And so it has now been eight years I have been waiting for those particular top-secret memos to be declassified and released.
The funny thing about all this is that there are tons of memos that were top secret that are now fully declassified, about all kinds of lurid, surprising, shocking bio-warfare weapons development projects from those same years. So the real question is why those particular memos – there may be 150 of them – of all top-secret documents, are still kept secret. What’s in there that could possibly be more shocking than the stuff that I was reading that was declassified?
Brown: What is the point of keeping these documents secret?
Baker: Well, I guess the point is that America wants to think of itself as a collection of well-meaning, nice people who do heroic things from time to time, and sometimes those heroic things involve large weapons, and it’s all for the good. When in fact the truth about the United States is much darker than that. And it has to do with the fact that every so often people in this country, especially when faced with communist threats like in the early fifties, when the world seemed to be coming under the grip of communism everywhere, they become a little bit crazy. The armies that the United States could muster, along with the Western alliance, were completely outnumbered by the Russian army, especially when you added in China’s People’s Liberation Army. So you had a real feeling of panic. Atomic bombs were not going to win the war either, because it’s very difficult to bomb armies with atomic weapons.
So they thought to themselves, what else do we have? And part of the triumphant success of American ingenuity was in its medical establishment. So they hired a bunch of microbiologists and doctors to come up with ways to make crops, farm animals and people sick. And this program went on for years. And it is a very dark stain on American history. And it was ended by some heroic people in the 1960s who said, this is a very bad idea and, in fact, is threatening the security of the United States.
Brown: The fact that the biological weapons program has been shut down does not mean that they’re not keeping secrets about other things today, I presume.
Baker: The Barr version of the Mueller report came out as I was working on the book. It’s one gigantic tangle of black marks. Right now, we would like to know, for instance, what research programs are going on in the United States in certain laboratories. And we can’t find that out. Huge chunks of our ability to know about past problems, especially past covert action programs managed by the Central Intelligence Agency, are encased in this impermeable membrane of secrecy. And they are never knowable.
There were a lot of times when I was writing this book when I would just stop and think, why are people not making more of an effort to understand how crazy this idea was? The idea was that the communists were so bad, they were like an infection. And this infection had to be countered with real infections, genuine human sickening infections that involve germs. I think it was a mass psychotic episode of American history.
Brown: In the book you suggest Lyme disease – now an epidemic – may be a lab-created tick-borne weapon that escaped into the public. When I read that, I thought, I hope people don’t start calling Nick a crackpot. Were you concerned that you were headed into tinfoil-hat territory?
Baker: Yes, of course. The problem with talking about the history of the CIA in particular is that they did so many things that were both sneaky and dumb for so many years that after a while, when you start talking about them, you do start sounding like a really overwrought person. One of the challenges of the book was to describe the mood swings that come with writing about things you can’t know about completely – that are secret and that are being willingly kept from you. That does take a toll. Although I actually think it’s good to try to go deep with things, to the point where you’re almost too swept up in them, and then pull out. [Pauses, laughs.] I feel fine now.
Brown: I’m very glad to hear that. You say secrecy is actually destroying democracy – that you can’t have the consent of the governed unless the governed know what they’re consenting to.
Baker: The simple thing to do would be to say every document that’s more than 50 years old should just be made available to historians who are curious about things that happened 50 years ago. And it would free up platoons of people who are looking at screens and whiting out little phrases and words. There’s no consistency. I mean, one person on a Tuesday will white out a certain whole paragraph and leave the next paragraph readable. And then another person responding to a different Freedom of Information request will white out and leave open other pieces of that same document. It’s a deliberately confusing system. But the nice thing is that a lot of what you need to know, you can kind of fill in the blanks with old newspaper articles.
You start with a deep, dark secret like the feather bomb. It was developed with the help of Japanese germ warfare scientists. They take these washed fluffed turkey feathers and they mix them with whatever disease they want to distribute. And they put them in a thing that looks like a normal bomb with compartments. The one that got closest to being made into an official weapon in the Air Force arsenal was the feather bomb that carried a fungal disease of wheat, called wheat stem rust. The plan was to drop very contagious spores of this stem rust all over Ukraine and other wheat-producing regions in the Soviet Union and in East Germany, to create famine. That was the plan. And there are many documents that have been declassified where you can read about that.
But the part I was interested in was the lab leak part. How do you come up with a stem rust weapon that you know will actually infect enemy crops? Well, you have to infect your own crops. So they had test fields in upstate New York, and infected cereal crops with fungal diseases. And then – and this was the moment that I thought, I really love newspapers, and especially local newspapers – suddenly, in all these local newspapers, out of nowhere, they’re talking about a wheat stem rust epidemic in 1950! A quarter of all the durum wheat crop was ruined in North Dakota – a gigantic epidemic unlike anything that had ever hit before!
Plus the man who was the best-known expert in wheat stem rust was consulting for [the Army’s biowar lab] at that period, helping weapons developers figure out ways to use wheat stem rust.
Brown: Knowing what you know, when you hear somebody say COVID-19 escaped from a weapons lab, can you dismiss it?
Baker: I do dismiss that COVID came from a weapons lab, because we are in a different world. But as soon as I heard there was an unusual new disease that had broken out in a city in China and that it was very close to a high-level biosecure virology laboratory, all of my experiences in the book, which are about lab disasters of all kinds – of course I thought, well, this is probably some sort of lab leak.
The difference is that now factories around the world are not, I think, interested in building the kind of feather bombs and fogs of disease that the United States was doing in the fifties. That’s over.
What they want now is to have a piece of the vaccine preparation pie. Countries want to be major players in the vaccine and viral remedy scene. And in order to do that, you have to carry out certain experiments. And some of the experiments, if you are really a determined virologist and an ambitious virologist, are exceedingly risky – because they involve the creation of a chimeric disease in which you take something from column A and something from column B, and put them together – maybe bats and human – and come up with a disease that challenges the vaccine that you’re developing. That is what’s been happening for the past 15 years in the United States funded by the National Institutes of Health.
But they also were paying laboratories around the world to do the same research. So it was an exceptionally risky experiment in itself: can we pay very smart, very resourceful scientists a lot of money to make diseases that did not exist before, and not have the breakout of any new epidemics? That was the experiment they were running. They maybe didn’t know they were running it, but that’s the experiment they were running.
And the question is this: is this new thing that we’re dealing with, this horrible catastrophe that we’re dealing with, the result of the experiment? Or is this something just completely coincidental and in parallel and has nothing to do with the experiment?
Baker: I think of it like a detective who is confronted by a murder, a woman who has died. Every detective knows that the first suspect is the husband. So if an exotic disease breaks out in a certain place and there is a lab that stores thousands of strains of exotic diseases that are similar to that disease, then your first action as a detective would be to knock on the door of that laboratory and say, excuse me, I’m sure that everything’s fine, but could we see your notebooks and could we just peek into your freezers? And that has not happened. If it was in the United States it would happen, because the rules in the United States are that that has to happen. But we don’t know: there has been no investigation of what happened in the laboratory.
[Sighs, pauses.] I don’t know. I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone can know the answer from the outside. The answer may never be known. But it certainly is so similar to breakouts from laboratories in the past.
And if it is something that happened in the laboratory and not spontaneously in a bat cave somewhere, then it isn’t something we can use to demonize China. Because there was an experiment that was actually going forward with not only the advice and encouragement and training of the United States, but with American funding. The permission to use these so-called gain-of-function experiments, which were paused for a while, was granted by Donald Trump.So, you know, it’s such a huge, huge question. And it’s not something anybody can solve until somebody is able to talk to everyone involved – and not in an accusing spirit. There’s no diabolical plan. There are just ambitious countries and ambitious scientists who want to have flashy papers in the biggest journals and also to win the Nobel Prize by coming up with a vaccine for Ebola, say, or SARS 1, or now for SARS 2. That’s what they want to do.
Brown: You start every diary entry with personal details – about your two new rescue dachshunds, about your wife, Margaret. Your mother-in-law dies. I’m sorry for that loss, by the way. Why did you do that? Was it an antidote to the demoralizing discoveries you were making?
Baker: I think daily life is the crucial antidote. If you have chosen for one reason or another to read about a very sad truth of life, like a war or a mistaken [laughs] germ science program from long ago, it can be very depressing. Because you think, how can human beings be doing this? Not just to enemies, but to themselves and to experimental monkeys and cats and dogs? There’s just this feeling of general death and destruction. Part of my interest in writing the book as a diary is to ask, how do you keep going? How do you stay on an even keel?
Well, the thing that actually nourishes our sense of joy in life – is life itself. It’s looking out the window and waiting for spring and then, my God, spring finally is there. I mean, dandelions: I’m always just entranced. There’s just so many little things that make me happy. I started writing the book in earnest two days after we’d gotten these middle-aged rescue dachshunds from the Bangor humane society. And they just had their teeth removed and they just had had their testicles removed. And they were kind of in shock. So I would write about experiments with dogs and monkeys and many, many guinea pigs – thousands of guinea pigs – and then I would sit on the bed and put my hand on the head of one of our two dachshunds. And I was holding an actual mammal! You know, just a tremendously – I dunno, mammalian, beautiful, affirming good experience that had to do with the urgency of life. The presentness, the warm-bloodedness of reality.
Brown: Prior to the creation of the CIA, there was at least the possibility that events were what they seemed to be. The CIA undercut our ability to trust reality. And maybe Trump changed it too, with his denial of any common set of facts that we might rely on to measure progress, that we might use to be collectively hopeful about the future.
Baker: There’s this amazing parallel history in the United States at that time of really beautiful things – E.B. White’s writing, Katherine White’s editing, the New Yorker in general, rhythm and blues and certain bits of music. Certain kinds of comedy, sitcoms. Things like that. All of that is stuff to be proud of. We need to remember that we have been capable of really beautiful things in this country. Even some good poetry here and there. And yet, we’ve made some really, really bad mistakes, and set fires all over the world, and caused unthinkable levels of misery and suffering in poor countries. And that’s inescapable. But you have to try to hold those two incompatible versions of the American past in your mind at the same time, which is a tall order.
Brown: Do you think at this point, given the divided post-election state of your country – and I’m not trying to be condescending – it’s possible to be hopeful?
Baker: [Thinks for a long time.] I want to be part of something good. I would like to believe good things about the country, believe that it has a potential to rescue itself from its worst excesses. And the only way to do that, I think, is to try to tell the best stories about now, and about what led to now. Learn as much about the dark shadows, as well as the highlights, of a few generations past. And then celebrate the incredible things that are going on right now.
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