Presidential probers have found "smoking gun" documents showing the government often improperly made secret its reports about radiation tests.

It classified many of them as secret not just because of national security concerns - as it told the public - but for fear of lawsuits from victims, bad publicity or having such research halted.Documents also show the public or government workers were sometimes deliberately misled - such as an instance when some workers were not told by government doctors that they were sick or that the diseases were likely caused by radiation.

And the officials who created such secrecy were the same people who recommended that the government adopt public policies generally condemning secrecy in scientific work.

The Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments - formed by President Clinton to evaluate the ethics of Cold War tests - released such documents from several agencies Thursday.

Many of the tests it is reviewing occurred in Utah. Dugway Proving Ground was the site of 74 known or suspected radiological weapons tests. And nuclear bomb tests in Nevada occurred only when the wind would blow fallout toward Utah.

Smoking guns

"Some of these documents come as close to a smoking gun as you can get," Dan Guttman, executive director of the committee, told the Deseret News.

He noted that the government for years claimed it classified reports on such tests only to protect national security. It also said early scientists did not realize how dangerous radiation was, which could explain why many people were exposed to it.

"These documents show that was not always the case," Guttman said. "They did know it was dangerous. There were discussions about it at the highest levels. And documents were classified for worry about insurance claims, lawsuits and bad publicity."

An example is an April 17, 1947, letter from the Atomic Energy Commission to a researcher.

"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 (sic) should be classified `secret,'" Col. O.G. Haywood Jr. wrote.

The Atomic Energy Commission even formed an insurance division that screened data to help prevent release of anything that might lead to claims or lawsuits. And public-relations officials were consulted to help guard against bad publicity.

Insurance officers censor

An example was a 1947 report on two people who had been given plutonium. Documents show a series of reviewers said it presented no national security threat and was releasable under all guidelines at the time.

But an insurance official wrote that the results - showing the people may have been exposed without their knowledge - would open up the government "to a devastating lawsuit which would, through its attendant publicity, have far-reaching results."

The document had originally been unclassified, but after such comments was reclassified as restricted."

In a similar situation - where scientific reviewers recommended release of a study on uranium exposure - a public relations official wrote that it "would be unwise because it reflects hospitalization of certain personnel and possibly could have an effect on certain lawsuits." It was also restricted.

Declassification officers censor

Declassification officers - not just insurance or public relations officials - also began looking for public relations problems when deciding whether to release documents.

Maj. Richard T. Batson, an AEC declassification officer, wrote about a uranium study in 1947, "These documents may involve matters prejudicial to the best interests of the Atomic Energy Commission in that experiments with humans are involved. . . . We are, therefore, asking that the documents be reclassified as `restricted.'"

Likewise, declassification officials recommended against release of a study that showed tolerance levels for radiation exposure by government workers may have been too low.

"We can see the possibility of a shattering effect on the morale of the employees if they became aware that there was substantial reason to question the standards of safety under which they are working," the officers wrote in a Dec. 19, 1948 memo.

They added, "In the hands of labor unions the results of this study would add substance to demands for extra-hazardous pay" and that it "might increase the number of claims of occupational injury due to radiation and place a powerful weapon in the hands of a plaintiff's attorney."

Scientists censor, too

Scientists themselves also recommended against release when they forsaw such problems.

Dr. Albert D. Holland Jr., an AEC medical officer, urged that a report about exposure to radioactive zirconium not be released "since it specifically involves experimental human therapeutics. Further, after reviewing the paper as written carefully, it appears almost impossible to rewrite it in an acceptable manner, which would not jeopardize our public relations."

Another time, Holland didn't object to data released about a human experiment - only because "purportedly the human work was done in the Department of Medicine of the University of Chicago" and not directly by government doctors.

Another doctor, Robert S. Stone of the University of California, wrote in an Oct. 6, 1948, letter recommended solving any threat of lawsuit from a study of X-rays on terminally ill patients by removing all reference to them - including their initials.

"With the initials removed, there will be no means by which the patients can ever connect themselves up with the report," he wrote.

Even secret illness

A July 25, 1945, document shows government doctors were also keeping secret from some Oak Ridge, Tenn., laboratory workers the fact they were sick with kidney disease and other problems, which they suspected may have been caused by radiation exposure.

The memo to legal officers asked if doctors were under ethical, moral or legal obligation to warn workers that they suffered such illnesses.

It added, "The employees must necessarily be rotated out and not permitted to resume further exposure. In frequent instances no other type of employment is available. Claim and litigation will necessarily flow from the circumstances outlined."

In another case of misleading someone, documents mention that residents were told that collection of animal fluid and human urine downwind from atomic bomb tests was for "nutritional" studies, when it was actually for fallout studies.

Documents also show that not only were human radiation tests often kept secret, so were those involving animals. "It was felt that, because of anti-vivisection sentiment (on using animals), release of such information would be detrimental to the testing program," a 1952 Defense Nuclear Agency history said.


Many of the scientists and other officers - including Haywood, Stone and Holland - who secretly advocated not releasing many studies pushed for public policies encouraging as much disclosure as possible.

A review board thanked them and others by name for their help in 1947 for helping propose a public policy that "secrecy in scientific research is distasteful and in the long run is contrary to the best interests of scientific progress."

It added, "The Board of Review recommends that in so far as it is compatible with national security, secrecy in the field of biological and medical research be avoided."

Chemical, germ tests, too?

Such actions about secrecy may not have been limited just to radiation research. The committee unearthed a similar document about chemical and biological weapons testing, too.

A Sept. 3, 1952, memo from the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked for arms of the military to ensure "that all published articles stemming from the BW (biological warfare) or CW (chemical warfare) research and development programs are disassociated from anything which might connect them with U.S. military endeavor."

In other words, scientists involved with chemical or germ warfare research could at that time write publicly about findings only if they could eliminate all references to the warfare studies.

Of course, much of that testing also occurred at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground.