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Part II

Chapter 13


National Security and Governmental Prestige: The Legal Tradition Inherited by Cold War Agencies

The Practice of Secrecy

The Records of Our Past


Chapter 13: Introduction

When news reports of human radiation experiments sponsored by the government appeared in late 1993, most citizens were startled to learn about such seemingly secret activities. However, some said that there was nothing new or secret; not only had such experiments been the subject of government inquiry in prior years, but they also had been openly published in the medical literature, and even the popular press, at the time they were performed. Not unlike the atomic bomb itself, human radiation experiments were said to be the darkest of secrets and yet no secret at all. What was secret about human experiments and what was not? This chapter, drawing on what we have reported and adding some new material, summarizes what we have learned about both the rules governing secrecy in human subject research and data gathering and the actual practices employed.

To most citizens it is axiomatic that openness in government is a cornerstone of our society. We believe this is so for many reasons. In a democracy, the free flow of information is essential if we are to choose our governmental leaders, understand their policy choices, and hold them accountable. In our society, when the government puts citizens at risk, those citizens reasonably expect to be informed--both in advance about the potential risks and in retrospect about the consequences. In the tradition of science, as well as that of democracy, secrecy has often been said to be anathema. Good science requires the testing of theories and findings, and the open flow of information is essential to this end.

Yet we also know that the government must keep some secrets for reasons of national security. But national security may not be the only reason the public cannot obtain information about government activities. In the absence of an affirmative requirement that the government must provide the public with access to information--such as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted in 1966--much information that is not classified under secrecy laws is, for practical purposes, out of the citizen's reach. Even under FOIA, access can be denied for reasons other than national security.[1] Finally, the government can make information public in a form--such as technical research reports--that is too obscure or costly to be within the practical reach of many citizens. In short, our discussion of secrecy must begin, but not end, with information intentionally concealed through the formal system of classification.[2] It must also cover information that is intentionally concealed through other means and information that may not have been intentionally concealed but remains inaccessible to the public.

The government's use of secrecy is a measure of its citizens' ability to understand, participate in, and trust government. Because the government must keep some secrets, the measure of public trust, therefore, is not simply whether secrets are kept but the integrity of the rules used to keep them. The question, then, is not simply whether secrets were kept. Were the rules governing secrecy clear and known to all? Were they reasonable? Were they honored in practice?

To answer these questions, we begin by describing the rules of secrecy that governed the the AEC and the Defense Department at the beginning of the Cold War. We found that in addition to national security, classification guidelines instructed officials to keep secrets for other reasons, including the protection of the "prestige" of the government.

We begin reviewing the practices of secrecy with the story of a debate within the early AEC over declassification of Manhattan Project human radiation experiments. While publicly professing the need to limit secrecy in science to matters of national security, the AEC kept information on experiments secret for reasons of public relations and liability. We next turn to the practice of secrecy that began roughly in 1950. We have learned that since that time, human subject research (including those that served military purposes) have typically not been classified. Nonetheless, some important information on human radiation experiments was still concealed from the public. After these two sections on the practices of secrecy in clinical research, we turn to the issue of secrecy in environmental releases of radiation. When radiation was released into the environment, the government concealed information for reasons that included but were not limited to national security. Finally, we look at the government's practice of record keeping. The government records that the Advisory Committee and the Human Radiation Interagency Working Group have retrieved are invaluable, and the history described in this report could not have been told without them. At the same time there are important gaps in the records that limit the public's ability to know about the rules and practices of secrecy, and most important, the activities that were conducted--in whole or in part--in secret.

While the Cold War is over, the choices faced by biomedical officials and researchers from the onset of the period, and the decisions they made, have substantial relevance today. Early AEC leaders and biomedical advisers came from traditions of science and democracy that recognized that while some secrets must be kept, secrecy is corrosive, and over the longer term secrecy itself can endanger national security. At the same time, these individuals were confronted with continued temptation to keep secrets out of concern that public opinion about sensitive matters would itself imperil programs they believed to be important. The boundary between legitimate concern for national security requirements and concern for the consequences of public opinion was continually tested. The problem of defining this boundary, and ensuring its integrity, remains with us today. So, too, does the no less important question of the means of ensuring public trust in cases where secrecy is merited. In what follows we seek to determine what can be learned from the experience of those for whom the question of defining the rules of secrecy and putting them into practice was routine and essential.

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