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Publisher's Summary

A major new work, a hybrid of history, journalism, and memoir, about the modern Freedom of Information Act – FOIA – and the horrifying, decades-old government misdeeds that it is unable to demystify, from one of America's most celebrated writers

Eight years ago, while investigating the possibility that the United States had used biological weapons in the Korean War, Nicholson Baker requested a series of Air Force documents from the early 1950s under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. Years went by, and he got no response. Rather than wait forever, Baker set out to keep a personal journal of what it feels like to try to write about major historical events in a world of pervasive redactions, withheld records, and glacially slow governmental responses. The result is one of the most original and daring works of nonfiction in recent memory, a singular and mesmerizing narrative that tunnels into the history of some of the darkest and most shameful plans and projects of the CIA, the Air Force, and the presidencies of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. 

In his lucid and unassuming style, Baker assembles what he learns, piece by piece, about Project Baseless, a crash Pentagon program begun in the early fifties that aimed to achieve "an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date". Along the way, he unearths stories of balloons carrying crop disease, leaflet bombs filled with feathers, suicidal scientists, leaky centrifuges, paranoid political-warfare tacticians, insane experiments on animals and humans, weaponized ticks, ferocious propaganda battles with China, and cover and deception plans meant to trick the Kremlin into ramping up its germ-warfare program. At the same time, Baker tells the stories of the heroic journalists and lawyers who have devoted their energies to wresting documentary evidence from government repositories, and he shares anecdotes from his daily life in Maine feeding his dogs and watching the morning light gather on the horizon. The result is an astonishing and utterly disarming story about waiting, bureaucracy, the horrors of war, and, above all, the cruel secrets that the United States government seems determined to keep forever from its citizens.

©2020 Nicholson Baker (P)2020 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"The synchronicity is extraordinary, almost chilling: Nicholson Baker’s gripping diary of his endless attempts to ferret out facts relating to the Pentagon’s top-secret biological weapons programs is published while the whole world is suddenly upended and aghast amid a lethal biological attack of an apparently natural origin. I say apparently natural - for as every page of this book is peppered with tales of bizarre weapons - infected feathers, for God’s sake! plague-saturated voles! - you come away doubting everything  the US government ever says. And yet, through it all, Baker tells us with a meticulous diarist’s calm about his dogs and the Maine countryside and the birdsong, and you feel, in the end, everything will be alright, and germ-free." (Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China and The Professor and the Madman)

"A luminous meditation on the power of secrets and mysteries. Baker shows us the ways in which a government shielded by a bodyguard of lies threatens the foundations of democracy." (Tim Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Legacy of Ashes and The Folly and the Glory)

"One of America's most brilliantly creative writers navigates the mirrored labyrinth of government secrecy with a combination of astonishment and rage.  Along the way, he discovers an array of long-hidden terrors while balancing the joys of daily life against the dread that envelops all who confront the reality of covert power." (Stephen Kinzer, author of Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control)

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Ground-breaking, thought provoking book

A decade ago Nicholson Baker set out to determine whether the United States used biological weapons in the Korean War. He soon found himself in a frustrating struggle to gain access to 50 year old documents under the Freedom of Information Act. As in Human Smoke, he deftly weaves together multiple stories—the history of US biological and chemical weapons research; the transformation of the CIA from an agency to gather information to a hatchery for elaborate psychological warfare plans and ill-conceived covert operations that could be “plausibly denied;” the deeply-ingrained culture of secrecy and lies now used protect government agencies from embarrassment; finally and most movingly, the personal impact on the historian who is seeking the truth.

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Fascinating, Disturbing Stories Beautifully Told

This book tells many stories about past misdeeds of the US government, particularly the CIA, in studying and perhaps engaging in biological warfare - against crops, animals, and people. It also tells stories about the life of a dogged researcher, the frustrations about and ridiculousness of Freedom Of Information Act enforcement and failures to follow the law.

Despite many redactions and government refusals to produce old documents from the 1950s, Baker gathers convincing evidence of US use of biological weapons. The history of US employment of Nazi and Japanese biological warfare specialists is a blight on the US. The evidence of research conducted on US soil was alarming.

The book is a convincing argument for complete overhaul of US secrecy laws to allow greater transparency. Documents more than 50 years old should not be withheld or redacted.

Baker intertwines these numerous interesting stories with very brief anecdotes about his daily life. The contrast between a quiet life of reading, writing, pets, and weather, and the tales of criminal actors perpetuating or attempting to cause mass crop failure, disease and death, was striking.

While I found Baker’s narration a bit slow, I loved the humanity of his voice and genuine audible despair about his awful discoveries. Many questions remain about the stories told, but it’s impossible to know if the answers are still obtainable or forever erased from history.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history, the US in the 1950s, FOIA, research, and science.