The release today of documents showing federal officials knew the harmful effects of radiation tests during the Cold War casts the issue of government accountability from that era in a new light.

For many Americans this disclosure may erase the trust they have in their own government.Utahns should pay close attention. Seventy-four known or suspected radiological tests occurred at Dugway Proving Ground alone, and the many tests in Nevada were carried out only when the wind was blowing away from Las Vegas and toward Utah.

That isn't news. For years, the Deseret News has been uncovering evidence of these tests. However, the latest documents, unearthed by President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, show that the people conducting these tests knew they likely were hurting people. The government willfully placed the health and safety of Americans at risk.

That is news indeed. It also is justifiable cause for anger. No longer can apologists defend or overlook what happened at Dugway or in Nevada with the thought that scientists hadn't yet learned the impact of what they were doing.

The documents show government officials as early as 1947 classified records as top secret not because of concerns over national security, as has often been claimed, but because of the fear of lawsuits and bad publicity. In some cases, government workers were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation but were never told because, among other things, labor unions might have demanded extra-hazardous pay and victims may have filed insurance claims.

In another instance, government workers tested people downwind from atomic tests, telling the public they were conducting nutritional studies. In fact, documents show they were studying the level of fallout in proximity to the tests.

The documents paint a cold-blooded picture of certain high-level government officials at the time - particularly disturbing considering the nation had just won a war over a Nazi regime that had carried out ghastly experiments on humans.

This page has consistently urged Utahns not to apply the standards of today when judging the actions of government officials during those years of Soviet-bred anxiety, mistrust and fear. However, it is difficult to formulate a reasonable historical context under which the government could ethically and morally cause deliberate and clandestine harm to its own citizens.

The nearly 50 years that have passed since the dates on the documents in question make it useless to search for people to punish. The proper course of action is for the government to continue opening all relevant records from the era and to come clean on the extent of all tests involving radiation, chemical and germ-warfare tests.

Although many years have passed, such candor can have a cathartic effect on the public as well as the government. The mere release of these documents could begin restoring trust in the government and its military.

Then, steps must be taken to ensure the government never again uses its own citizens as guinea pigs.