Governmental secrecy not only permits evil, but also breeds it.
It’s this concept that forms the backbone of Nicholson Baker’s foray into the U.S. development of biological weapons in the 1950s. His book, Baseless: My Search For Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act has a promising concept, which is to use the topic as a way to examine the shortcomings of America’s public records law.
The book does not deliver on that promise.
In fact, the reader will be misled by the title. What comes instead is a series of anecdotes about biological weapons, with an occasional reference to FOIA — the Freedom of Information Act — all delivered in a jarring, inaccessible daily journal style.
According to the book’s index, there are as many references to FOIA — 41 — as there are mentions of feathers and feather bombs. The book offers a handful of worthwhile meditations on secrecy and the need for public records, but they are the exception.
It is not natural for governments to embrace transparency — in fact, the greedy nature of institutional power, the siren song of secrecy, and the constant threat of embarrassment coalesce to form powerful incentives against it. Access to government records are one of the public’s only safeguards against this array of challenges.
“You can’t have the consent of the governed unless the governed know what they’re consenting to,” Baker rightly points out.
The book has sparks of what it could have been: Take these ruminations on what redaction — common in almost any worthwhile responsive FOIA document — does to thinking: “Redaction is a form of psychological warfare,” he writes, adding elsewhere, “If you blank many proper names and sections of many paragraphs, the import of an entire document becomes blurred… sometimes it works like loud crackly static.”
I had wanted to read more about this: the pathology of government secrecy. I started the book thinking it would feature a mystery that was either gradually solved by assiduous public records work — or frustrated by shortcomings of FOIA law. This was not that kind of book.
The reader will come away revolted by the American government’s development of biological weaponry, some of which was only presented to the public through the use of FOIA.
One such horrifying instance, when American covert warfare scientists tested the use of aerosols by spraying the skies over San Francisco in September 1950, opens one’s eyes to American governmental misconduct.
The central question of the book is whether or not the United States used the terrifying weapons that it had developed in the 1950s — and in particular if Communist claims of American biological warfare had any merit.
This book features, after hundreds of pages, Baker’s best guess. But he does not present convincing evidence, and then the book just sort of ends because, as he writes, “I was wondering how to end this book… not when [I’ve] found the answer, but when [I am] tired of wanting to know the answer.” His exhaustion is evident.
The book is written in a daily diary style that serves to fragment the stories and create a dizzying, confusing effect on the reader. Interspersed with studies about biological warfare are scattershot observations about his dogs’ ears, his breakfast of boiled potatoes, the cold weather, and his myriad dreams — none of which are humorous or charming.
One chapter, titled ‘May 17, 2019’ simply reads: “Overcast today.”
Characters are introduced and quickly forgotten, never to be mentioned again. Baker is clearly a tireless investigator. But anecdotes are displayed, as if to show Baker’s hard work reading thousands of dense pages of documents, then not really connected to a larger point.
It may be giving Baker too much credit to suggest that maybe he was trying to make a meta point about the Freedom of Information Act with his book.
As any seasoned FOIA requester knows, requests often end the same way: after a long, exhausting process to obtain the truth, filed with diversions and distractions, what returns is a frustrating jumble of unrelated and inconclusive documents.
Sadly, such is the same with Baseless.