6. 1947 AEC Memo Reveals Why Human Radiation Experiments Were Censored

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Sources: SECRECY & GOVERNMENT BULLETIN, Date: March 1994, Title: “Protecting Government Against the Public,” Author: Steven Aftergood; COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, Date: March/April 1994, Title: “The Radiation Story No One Would Touch,” Author: Geoffrey Sea

SYNOPSIS: As the secrecy ban is finally lifted, the unethical, immoral, and illegal Cold War radi­ation experiments on unsuspecting humans by the Department of Defense are illuminated by a most remarkable document that has emerged virtually unnoticed.

Dated April 17, 1947, an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) memo­randum, stamped SECRET and addressed to the attention of a Dr. Fidler, at the AEC in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, reads in part as follows: “Subject: MEDICAL EXPERI­MENTS ON HUMANS

 “1. It is desired that no document be released which refers to experi­ments with humans and might have adverse effect on public opinion or result in legal suits. Documents cov­ering such work field should be clas­sified `secret’.”

The memorandum was issued over the name of O.G. Haywood, Jr., Colonel, Corps of Engineers. Apparently it was effective, for it was not until November 15, 1993, when The Albuquerque Tribune (cir­culation: 35,000) broke the story which was then catapulted into the national headlines by the forthright admissions and initiatives of Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary. Eileen Welsome’s three-part inves­tigative series for the Tribune later won her a Pulitzer Prize.

Ironically, as Geoffrey Sea., author and radiological health physicist, points out, documenta­tion of the inhumane program was massive, solid, and publicly avail­able, as early as 1986. But the major news media were not interested; it was only after the disclosures by a small daily newspaper and Secretary O’Leary-with all the vic­tims dead and most of the perpe­trators retired-that the news media put it on the national agenda.

Even now, as new revelations about the enormous scope of the horrifying experiments are discov­ered, there is little if any mention of the AEC memorandum which has been described by America’s security classification expert, Steven Aftergood, as “One of the more remarkable documents to emerge” from the Energy Department’s new openness initia­tive-the 1947 Atomic Energy Commission memorandum on the classification of human radiation experiments.

As Aftergood points out, the memorandum identifies the true enemy-“public opinion.” And the means used to defeat the enemy­ “classification.” “The practice of classifying information in order to prevent embarrassment to an agency has long been prohibited,” Aftergood said. “And yet it is com­monplace. The AEC memo itself was classified Secret (meaning it supposedly `could be expected to cause serious damage to the national security’).”

Classification of the AEC memo, which was obtained by Rep. John Dingell’s subcommittee on oversight, was finally canceled by the authority of the Department of Energy, on February 22, 1994.

SSU Censored Researcher: Jessica Nystrom

COMMENTS: While Steven Aftergood published the 1947 AEC memo on the front page of his nationally-distributed Secrecy Government Bulletin in March 1994, the Washington Post did not report the same memorandum until December 15. Referring to the memo, the Post guilefully said that “newly uncovered government documents have revealed” that “government officials deliberately withheld information about the tests from individuals participating in them and from the general public in order to avoid lawsuits and negative public reaction.”

Noting that the story of human radiation experiments has justifi­ably received a flood of media cov­erage recently, Aftergood pointed out, “the role of the classification system in facilitating and con­cealing such experiments did not receive the attention it deserves.”

Aftergood charged, “The govern­ment’s ability to withhold informa­tion from the public in order to prevent `adverse effects on public opinion,’ or lawsuits, is about as frightening as some of the secret experiments themselves.

“The willful abuse of classifica­tion authority that is described so explicitly in the 1947 Atomic Energy Commission memorandum is what lifts the human experimen­tation story out of its historical context and makes it an urgent contemporary issue. As long as there are no effective constraints on the government secrecy system, the same kinds of abuses that occurred in the past could continue to take place today.”

Aftergood said the “lack of sus­tained attention to the workings of government secrecy naturally makes it more difficult to change ingrained bureaucratic habits.” Noting how the cold war secrecy system has proven to be amazingly resilient, Aftergood said that classi­fication activity has actually increased since the end of the cold war. Aftergood added that the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, expected to complete its work in the spring of 1995, will address the all-impor­tant question: “Could similar haz­ardous experiments be secretly conducted today?”

Geoffrey Sea, author of the Columbia Journalism Review article analyzing the history of the radia­tion story, has testified before the Advisory Committee several times and is actively involved in helping victims achieve some measure of justice. Sea has worked as a radia­tion specialist for a law firm which filed two class action lawsuits on behalf of the victims; he is a founding member of the Task Force on Radiation and Human Rights; he also directs the Tides Foun­dation’s Atomic Reclamation and Conversion Project; and he is writing a book about radiation experiments, Eyes Only: A Subject’s Story.

 Sea points out that while the media did have access to the radia­tion story much earlier (most of the clinical radiation experiments were published in major medical jour­nals or publicly available govern­ment reports), they chose to ignore it for decades as his article detailed. In the following, Sea updates the story with an account of develop­ments since the 1993 announce­ment by Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary which instigated the initial press coverage.

`After a flurry of media attention following O’Leary’s `revelations,’ the mass media apparently consid­ered that the story had run its course. In February of 1994, just when the truly revelatory docu­ments began to be released and the full picture began to emerge of gov­ernment-planned injuries to mil­lions of Americans, the radiation experiment story was knocked off the front page-and out alto­gether-by an orgy of sensational­istic journalism focused on injuries to John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis, Nancy Kerrigan’s knees, and the feelings of two murderous brothers named Menendez.

“As if this wasn’t enough, The New York Times then took a cue from the trashy coverage of these stories and decided to give a new spin to the radiation experiments: the victimizers as victims. On two consecutive days in March, The Times ran articles about the Vanderbilt and Cincinnati experi­ments suggesting that in both cases the scientists were `sharing the anguish’ felt by surviving subjects and families. Citing university con­tentions that `scientists did nothing wrong,’ The Times equated `the searing experience’ of the real exper­imental victims with that of the sci­entists and universities involved. The perpetrators, in their turn, took their cue from The Times and began bemoaning their victimization.

“Rather than receive O’Leary’s disclosures as an opening-then to be followed through all the devel­oping intricacies as one would a Watergate or a Whitewater-the media’s approach to O’Leary was wham, bam, thank you ma’am. Everyone carried the news of O’Leary’s call for the victims to be compensated. But then the issue was dropped as if it would just happen of its own accord. No one has even begun to explore the com­plications-technical, political and budgetary-of what real compensa­tion would entail. Nor has anyone honestly stated what is, in Wash­ington, a poorly guarded secret: that unless the victims take their claims to court, they won’t get squat from the government that betrayed them.

“The Department of Energy’s toll-free experiment hotline was publicized with great fanfare. But no one has bothered to ask what will happen to the massive list of callers. The answer? Nothing. It seems the hotline was established to create the appearance of govern­ment action and concern. There is actually not a single government plan for systematically identifying and helping the victims of the radi­ation experiments.

“Other substantive issues have gone wholly neglected by the media. We have heard a lot about the eighteen plutonium injectees, but nothing at all about the hun­dreds of people who were injected with uranium and at least a dozen other radionuclides; a lot about the schoolchildren who were fed radioactive iron and calcium in Massachusetts, but nothing about the larger number of similar chil­dren who were fed radioactive iron in Tennessee; a lot about the people who were exposed to radiation as part of an experiment, but nothing about the people who, once exposed, then became guinea pigs for the development of experi­mental drugs and radiation ‘treat­ments.’

“In the mid-1950’s, when radioactive strontium and iodine from fallout were discovered at dangerous levels in human breast milk, the atomic establishment decided, in the interest of `national security,’ that it would be better to stop breast-feeding than to stop nuclear testing. With its true moti­vations kept secret, the `scientific’ campaign against breast-feeding was thereby launched-perhaps the largest human experiment ever conducted on the planet. But we haven’t heard about it from the mass media-and won’t-unless O’Leary decides to hold another press conference.

“O’Leary will not likely be holding any more such press confer­ences. It is clear that she was strongly chastened by the White House, both for committing the Administration to the budgetary black hole of victim compensation, and for exposing the government to unspecifiable liability through the admission of wrongdoing. By the time she was called before a Senate committee and asked if the radia­tion experiments had been uneth­ical, O’Leary claimed incompetence in the rendering of moral judgment and referred the question to her agency’s lawyer. When people start referring ethical questions to lawyers, you know the fix is in. But you won’t read about that in The New York Times.

 “In fact, no one wants to be the one to render moral judgment. Not O’Leary, not the President’s Advisory Committee (members have already said that they are not interested in `laying blame’), cer­tainly not the White House, nor the new Republican Congress. The media won’t lay any blame-it’s just not what professional journal­ists do nowadays (they might get sued). And so we find ourselves in a curious situation. Crimes against Humanity, committed on a massive scale, without any criminals!

“Perhaps the biggest failing of the media’s coverage of this issue has been the abject inability to grasp the institutionalized, pro­grammatic character of the uneth­ical experimentation. Stories continue to portray single experi­ments or governmental decisions as if each were an aberration; a case of individual misdeed, lapse in judg­ment or failure in communication. Nowhere do we get the sense that, for decades, an organized group of doctors and policy makers at the nexus of the military-industrial­-university establishment conspired to deceive and injure experimental subjects-often intentionally selected from the disempowered segments of our society-to further the planning of and production for war. This is the same crime for which physicians at Nuremberg were tried, convicted, and hung. `Mistakes were made,’ the media now seem to be saying en masse, ,now let’s get on with less compli­cated news. This isn’t Nuremberg. We don’t hang people for atrocities anymore.’

“The cold war radiation experi­ments affected a far greater number of people than early reports indicated. Tens of thousands of people were the unwitting subjects of clinical experiments involving needless exposure to ionizing radia­tion, or dangerous radiation ‘treat­ments.’ Millions of people were exposed to fallout or other environ­mental contamination from inten­tional releases of radioactive material. Only a very small per­centage of the affected population has so far been identified, so greater media exposure of the experiments would have an obvious and vital impact on the further identification of subjects. These subjects may be at greater risk of disease or reproductive damage, should be included in medical monitoring programs, and have legal rights to seek compensatory and punitive damages.

“In addition, the radiation experiment program has been a gross violation of universal ethical principles and the public trust. In the former Soviet Union, numerous perpetrators of the Chernobyl dis­aster are still serving out prison terms, and officials held responsible for the accident have been either voted or thrown out of office. In the United States, however, not a single criminal prosecution has been initiated, election swayed or resignation compelled in the cases of perpetrators who clearly and will­fully planned a larger program of intentional harm.

“A startling fact about the exper­iments is that, despite the docu­mentation of hundreds of cases of unethical conduct resulting in lasting damage to thousands of people, not a single physician or nurse, scientist or technician, policy maker or administrator has yet come forward to admit wrong­doing. Accurate and morally per­suasive coverage might bring whistleblowers forward and might build the level of public indigna­tion to the point where criminal proceedings are initiated and public officials held accountable on this issue.

“Finally, we are in jeopardy of losing ,the universal applicability of the Nuremberg Code. American physicians involved in the radiation experiments have already said that the Code applied to German war criminals, but not to them. In order to insure that unethical human experimentation does not happen again, all violations of the Code must be publicized, the violators punished, and the universality of ethical standards upheld.

“The physicians and scientists who implemented the human radia­tion experiment program clearly benefit from its limited media exposure-many of them continue to practice or hold office and enjoy high standing in their professional communities. Likewise the many universities, hospitals and corpora­tions involved have not been held to account. The media and politi­cians in mid-sized cities like Nashville or Cincinnati often have very close ties to the local universi­ties and companies that were involved in the experimentation. It is easy to pursue a story about atroc­ities-as long as they are distant in time and space. But the radiation atrocities happened close to home, and not long ago, often involving familiar physicians and public offi­cials of some renown. The story has therefore been an uncomfortable one for editors, reporters, readers and viewers alike.”

Finally, Sea points out that in a larger sense, the radiological and nuclear industries stand to lose a lot from greater coverage of this story since many of the most prominent experimenters were also central figures in establishing cur­rent radiation protection standards and practices. Sea concludes, “If it becomes common knowledge that many of these advisers and regula­tors were themselves guilty of unethical conduct in causing inten­tional harm to patients, then all radiation safety standards and prac­tices would need to be reviewed.”