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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: Conclusion

Openness--the public sharing of all information necessary to govern--has long been an ideal in American democracy and politics. Scientists, also, have traditionally embraced openness as the surest guarantee of continued progress. However, the ideal of openness has often competed of necessity with some measure of government-imposed secrecy. This has been particularly the case in a time of national emergency, such as war. But secrecy existed even at the roots of our democracy: the Constitutional Convention itself was conducted out of the public eye.

In the early part of this century, President Woodrow Wilson called for "open covenants openly arrived at,"seeking to shed light upon an area--international diplomacy--traditionally shrouded in secrecy. In the half century since the end of World War II, with the growing importance of science and technology in our lives, the proper place of secrecy at the intersection of government, private enterprise, and research has emerged as a question of central and continuing importance to society.

We have focused upon only one of many Cold War settings where secrecy was often a routine consideration. But human radiation experiments and intentional releases of radiation were often closely related to, if not directly a part of, some of the most closely held of secrets; including, most notably, nuclear weapons design and testing. The episodes we reviewed reveal the tensions underlying the necessarily delicate balance between openness and secrecy.

We found that from the onset, leading government biomedical officials and advisers were aware of the costs of secrecy and proclaimed the need to limit its reach. In one important respect, these officials and researchers lived up to their publicly stated ideals. Since about midcentury, there have been very few instances in which the very existence of human subject radiation research has been officially classified. Nonetheless, we also found that practices often fell short of the ideals that were publicly expressed.

We found that decision making related to the secrecy of human subject research considered not only national security, but also other criteria. At its birth in 1947, the AEC determined to keep Manhattan Project experiments secret on the basis of concern for "adverse effects on public opinion" and possible "legal suits," even where national security itself was not expressly invoked. More generally, we also found that decisions to keep information secret were often accompanied by a concern that the public might not understand the information and thus overreact or that the public would understand the information but that its immediate reaction could undermine support for programs deemed essential by policymakers.

Significantly, we found that AEC and DOD discussions of Cold War human research policy were themselves conducted outside the realm of public debate. For example, the 1947 AEC declarations of requirements for human research involving patients were evidently given minimal distribution within the AEC research community itself. Recently retrieved documents now show that in 1947 the requirement of "informed consent" was itself invoked in secret by the AEC's Medical Board of Review, in response to the request for criteria that had to be met when secret experiments could be declassified, and evidently thereafter relied on to keep some experiments secret. Similarly, the discussions underlying the 1953 memorandum by Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, concerning human experiments done under DOD auspices, were themselves secret, as, of course, was the Wilson memorandum itself.

Even if there is clear and public consensus on what constitutes "national security," its application to the classification of particular information may be a matter of disagreement. In addition, in some cases the boundary between protecting the nation's security and simply avoiding the potential of adverse public reaction may not be so clear. For example, in an intense national crisis, the release of information that might jeopardize successful resolution of the crisis should properly be proscribed. But it is also clear that the assertion that programs will be jeopardized because of embarrassment or potential legal liability (or, worse, because of a lack of confidence in the American public's ability to understand) can be used to limit disclosure of precisely those matters that most affect us all and that would most benefit from informed public discussion.

If the boundary between openness and secrecy is inherently ambiguous, the public trust in those who define it on a daily basis requires a clear explanation of the principles that they will follow. However, we found that some of the basic principles and rules by which this boundary was defined were themselves kept secret from the public. AEC officials, in consultation with biomedical advisers internally invoked public relations and legal liability as bases for keeping secrets, while publicly declaring that secrecy should be limited to national security requirements. As a corollary, we found that where formal criteria for classification were not established, secrecy was nonetheless achieved by other, informal means. Thus, at midcentury, participants in discussions of defense-related biomedical research were told that while the information in question was not itself classified, it should nonetheless be kept from the press and public.

Since 1951, presidential executive orders have limited the use of classification stamps to matters of national security. Nonetheless, the keeping of secrets with reference to ill-defined reasons such as public relations, continued. Indeed, as recently as the early 1970s, adverse public relations was reportedly invoked as a reason for keeping secret details of the plutonium injections of the 1940s. In some cases, as we look back, the public relations rationale for secrecy appears to be more clearly documented than any national security rationale. For example, we found that in the early 1950s public relations was an express consideration in keeping secrets related to fallout-related human tissue sampling; but we found it more difficult to locate contemporaneous documentation of national security rationales, and in 1995, surviving participants found it hard to reconstruct one as well.

We also found instances where the keeping of secrets was accompanied by deception. The shades of deception ranged from outright denials by the AEC that it engaged in human experimentation, to the use of cover stories in the collection of human tissue, to incomplete information deliberately given participants in government-sponsored biomedical research. In some such cases, such as the use of a cover story in collecting the bones of stillborn infants, those involved rationalized that since partial truths were being told, active deceit was not involved. In others, a rationalization for deception was a desire not to alarm exposed workers or the public. In yet others, such as the AEC's denial that it sponsored human experiments (when its Isotopes Division publicly advertised the success of human subject research) the rationale is hard to discern in retrospect.

In many cases, of course, some degree of secrecy was merited.[154] We found that where secrecy was initially justified by reasons relating to national security, the classifying authority often gave too little attention to the likelihood that there would come a time when such information was no longer sensitive. Immediately prior to the AEC's creation, the Tolman Committee pointed out that in the long run (which that Committee identified in terms of years, not decades) the nation's interest lies in the disclosure of information that needs to be kept secret over the shorter term. Yet, the practical reality was that once information was "born secret" it often simply remained that way.

Similarly, we found that where a national security rationale for secrecy did exist, adequate attention was often not paid to ensuring that sufficient records would be created and maintained so that all affected individuals (and the public at large) could later know the possible health and safety consequences. As a result, "downwinders," as well as knowing participants in nuclear tests, today wonder whether the information given them represents the full story of these events. (Indeed, as we reported in chapter 11, the number of once-secret intentional releases that are publicly known burgeoned from the thirteen reported by the General Accounting Office in late 1993 to the far greater number reported by the DOD and DOE following their more recent search.) When, as we reported in chapter 10, there is evidence that government officials contemplated, and may have kept, secret records to evaluate potential claims from service personnel exposed to government-sponsored radiation risk, the public has a right to expect that the government can readily and unambiguously account for any record keeping that may have taken place. Its inability to do so is very troubling.

Finally, we found that confusion, misunderstanding, and controversy still characterize public understanding of issues at the core of the Committee's work; for example, what is the nature of the risk from radiation? And to what extent can government statements about human radiation experiments and intentional releases be trusted? It is important to reflect on the ways in which this state of affairs may, in part, be a consequence of past secret keeping.

In testimony before the Advisory Committee, numerous witnesses expressed a common feeling--that the government did not give adequate weight to the interests of an informed public. Secrets, some said, were kept from the American public, not the enemy. Even where information may have been rightly classified in the first instance, many pointed out that there is no longer any reason for the absence of documents that provide a clear and full accounting to all those who were put at risk. There are too many cases where we can give no comforting answer to these angry voices.

However, by paying heed to these voices and by trying to understand the past they point to, we may more readily find our path into the future. Perhaps the first step in this direction is a simple recognition that the proper boundary between openness and secrecy will not be immediately obvious in all cases; many cases will not only require judgment, but also the will to avoid the temptation to keep secrets because the benefits of secrecy may be immediate, while the costs are longer term.

A second step is to understand that where secrecy is truly merited, and citizens are put at risk, there must also be precautions to ensure that a timely public accounting will be possible when the information need no longer be kept secret.

As the Cold War recedes further into history, the issues of secrecy and openness it posed will undoubtedly continue to present themselves, although often in new settings. Our review of the past provides the basis for some specific recommendations about the future, but it also points to a more fundamental understanding of the wisdom of those leaders of the day who identified the long-term costs of secrecy and called for policies to minimize them. The shortcomings of past policies and actions confirm that even when principles are articulated by well-intentioned officials, the translation of principles into practice is not automatic and warrants careful attention by the public. At the same time, the present-day legacy of distrust confirms that too much secrecy in the short term will, in the long run, erode the public's trust in government and the government's ability to keep the secrets that must be kept.

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