Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Inside the Quest for Documents That Could Resolve a Cold War Mystery

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The US military really does not want people to see documents about possible use of biological weapons in the Korean War. I wonder why. Nicholson Baker writes at Literary Hub:

March 9, 2019, Saturday

In 2012, when I was hopeful and curious and middle-aged and eager for Cold War truth, I sent a letter to the National Archives, requesting, under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, copies of 21 still-classified Air Force memos from the early 1950s. Some of the memos had to do with a Pentagon program that aimed to achieve “an Air Force-wide combat capability in biological and chemical warfare at the earliest possible date.” This program, which began and ended during the Korean War, was given a code name: Project Baseless. It was assigned priority category I, as high as atomic weapons.

All twenty-one of these memos, numbered and cross-referenced, still exist, stored at the National Archives’ big building in College Park, Maryland—but they are inaccessible to researchers like me. At some point a security officer removed them from their original brown or dark green Air Force file folders—where they’d been stored alongside thousands of other, often fascinating documents that are now declassified and available to the public—and locked them in a separate place in the College Park building, in a SCIF, or Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, where only people with security clearances can go. In place of the actual documents, the security officer inserted pieces of stiff yellow cardboard that say “Security-Classified Information” and “ACCESS RESTRICTED.” After filing the FOIA request, I waited. A month later I got a letter from David Fort, a supervisory archives specialist at the National Archives’ National Declassification Center. Fort said that my request letter had been received and that it now had a number, NW 37756. “Pursuant to 5 USC 552(a)(6)(B)(iii)(III), if you have requested information that is classified, it will be necessary to send copies of the documents to appropriate agencies for further review,” Fort wrote. “We will notify you as soon as all review is complete.”

After that came months of silence. A year went by. Then two. In May 2014, David Fort, now deputy director of the Freedom of Information division at the National Archives, wrote me an email. “Periodically our office contacts researchers with requests older than 18 months to see if they are still interested in us processing their requests,” he said. “If I do not hear back from you in 35 business days I will assume you are no longer interested and we will close your request.”

I wrote back that I was definitely still interested, and I asked Fort why it was taking so long. “Unfortunately,” he replied, “because of the large number of cases we receive there is a large delay in being able to process requests.”

In June 2016 I asked for another update. “We sent your documents out for a declassification review back in August 2014 and are still waiting for agencies to get back to us with determinations,” Fort wrote. “As soon as that happens we can send you the documents.”

Isn’t it against the law for government agencies to delay their responses to FOIA requests? Yes, it is: the mandated response time in the law is twenty days, not including Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, and if one agency must consult with another agency before releasing a given document, the consultation must happen “with all practicable speed.” And yet there is no speed. There is, on the contrary, a deliberate Pleistocenian ponderousness. Some responses, especially from intelligence agencies, come back after a ten-year wait. The National Archives has pending at least one FOIA request that is twenty-five years old. “Old enough to rent a car,” said the National Security Archive, a group at George Washington University that works to get documents declassified.

So what should I do? Write more letters? Sue the Air Force? Sue the National Archives? Give up? Do these particular Pentagon memos even matter, when there are many thousands of declassified Korean War–era documents readily available to historians?

I did the simplest thing. I sent another email to David Fort. “Hi David—I hope all is well with you. I’m still hoping to see the twenty-one Air Force documents I requested in March 2012 (NW 37756). Seven years ago.” I deleted the words “seven years ago.” Then I typed them again. Seven years I’ve waited. I sent it.

For good measure, I also sent another email to David (who is a nice man) asking for information on a different request, a Mandatory Declassification Review that I’d submitted in March 2017. A Mandatory Declassification Review request, or MDR, is subject to different rules than a Freedom of Information Act request, and it can move along faster, or so I’ve heard. “Hi David—This MDR (# 57562, for two Air Force RG 341 documents from 1950) is now close to two years old. What should I do? Many thanks Nick B.”

Yesterday my wife, M., and I got two middle-aged, very small dachshunds from the Bangor Humane Society—possibly stepbrothers, one with long hair and one with short hair. They whimper and yowl and wag their tails so hard they make bonging sounds against the oven door. They’re rescue dogs. M. saw them on the Humane Society website.

March 10, 2019, Sunday

The two dogs slept in our bedroom last night. The cat, Minerva, is getting used to them. It was so cold outside at six this morning that one of the dogs, Cedric, simply stopped walking in the middle of the street. He wouldn’t move. I had to carry his shivering self home, while the other dog, whom we’re thinking of calling Brindle, or Briney, or Bryn, trotted along next to me.

This afternoon, I heard back from David Fort.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2020 at 5:08 pm

Posted in Government, Law, Military

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