AJR logo     

    
 AJR  Features

From AJR,   March 1994  issue

Radiation Redux   

In 1976, a newsletter revealed the government had injected people with plutonium. Nearly 20 years later, it's a big story.


By Debra Puchalla
Debra Puchalla is AJR's associate editor and deputy editor of Martha Stewart Living.      

Eileen Welsome, a reporter at the Albuquerque Tribune, was researching a story in 1987 on a radioactive waste dump in New Mexico when a footnote on a document caught her eye. The footnote, which alluded to a government-sponsored radiation experiment on human beings, led her on a six-year odyssey to try to find some of the experiment's unsuspecting victims. The result was a three-day, 44-page series published last November chronicling the stories of five Americans subjected to plutonium injections between 1945 and 1947.

It was a compelling saga of government malfeasance and human tragedy. Welsome was able to tell the stories of the individual victims identified only as case numbers in 50-year-old Atomic Energy Commission documents. But a paper the size of the Tribune, a 40,800-circulation afternoon daily, didn't have the clout to put the story on the national agenda.

Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary did.

Three weeks after the Tribune series ran, O'Leary piqued the media's interest when she pledged to declassify Department of Energy documents, acknowledged that human radiation experiments had taken place, and promised to "right the wrongs" done to victims.

O'Leary's comments catapulted the Tribune series into the spotlight. Other journalists began to follow up Welsome's work, and media columnists were feting her.

Welsome certainly deserves credit for her extraordinary reporting. But beyond identifying the patients behind the case numbers, she didn't break new ground. Stories on federal radiation experiments had already been published, in 1976 by Science Trends, a small newsletter, and in 1981 by Mother Jones magazine. Congress held hearings on the experiments in the wake of the Mother Jones article, and again in 1986, when Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Edward Markey released a report on the experiments. In each case, the stories received cursory attention from the mainstream press and then died.

In February 1976, Arthur Kranish came across a passage in a study done for the Atomic Energy Commission stating that Manhattan Project scientists, the designers of the first atomic bomb, had injected 18 people with "relatively massive quantities of bomb-grade plutonium" to see how much of the toxic substance their bodies would retain. Kranish, the editor and publisher of Science Trends, a newsletter covering technology and federal agencies, immediately printed the story.

"I hadn't seen anything about it before," Kranish recalls. "I was kind of astonished."

Newsweek and United Press International ran followups, says Kranish, but that was it. "It was still the Cold War and there was a great reluctance to open up those cases... Nobody ever really questioned the moral implications of using unwitting subjects."

Revelations about government radiation experiments surfaced again in the September/ October 1981 issue of Mother Jones. In the cover story, Howard L. Rosenberg, a reporter for columnist Jack Anderson, disclosed that NASA had conducted experiments on cancer patients at an Oak Ridge, Tennessee, clinic to test hu-man sensitivity to radiation. He had found that between 1960 and 1974, at least 89 cancer patients, many without their informed consent, were exposed to large doses of radiation.

Rosenberg, now a producer at "60 Minutes," pieced together the story after poring over thousands of pages of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. "It took 18 months before I wrote a word," he recalls.

Although the article was picked up by UPI and Rosenberg appeared on NBC's "Today," he says press attention lasted only a day or two. But the story generated some interest on Capitol Hill at least briefly. On September 23, then-Rep. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) held hearings about the Oak Ridge project. Later, Gore's subcommittee concluded that the doctors performing the experiments could not be held responsible.

Rosenberg left Jack Anderson soon thereafter, and while freelancing shared information with Robert Alvarez, then at the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Policy Institute, who was trying to uncover information about government radiation experiments. In 1984, Alvarez brought his findings to Rep. Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy conservation and power. Ottinger requested information from the DOE.

By the time the DOE provided documentation, Ottinger had retired and Markey had assumed the subcommittee chairmanship. In October 1986 after a two-year investigation Markey released a 95-page report detailing 31 separate experiments in which the government exposed nearly 700 people to radioactive substances between the mid-1940s and the early 1970s. The report, "American Nuclear Guinea Pigs: Three Decades of Radioactive Experiments on U.S. Citizens," stated that officials had conducted "repugnant" and "bizarre" experiments on hospital patients, prison inmates and hundreds of others who "might not have retained their full faculties for informed consent." These experiments included the ones Kranish and Rosenberg had reported years before.

Markey's office sent the report, embargoed until October 25, to major papers and the networks. On the day before it was released, however, the radiation experiments were the subject of a sidebar to a New York Times story on the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. There is a dispute over whether the Times broke the embargo, but reporter Matthew L. Wald says he got his information independently, from declassified DOE documents. "Our story was not based on the report," he recalls. "We played it inside primarily because it didn't seem as good as the piece for which it was a sidebar."

On October 25, the Associated Press and Reuters each covered Markey's report with 400-word stories. UPI put out several hundred-word stories about specific experiments in different regions of the country. The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran the AP copy on their inside pages. The Washington Post ignored it.

Markey's press secretary at the time, Raoul Rosenberg, says the New York Times' limited coverage helped kill the story. "Not being on the front page, as a paper of record, it made it seem as if it were not significant," he says.

Markey, who was active in the nuclear weapons freeze movement and an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration's nuclear power policies, says he wasn't surprised by the lack of coverage. "It was an era that sanctified the nuclear arms race," he says. "I was a voice in the wilderness in the mid-'80s. I was battling the Pentagon, arms contractors, the nuclear industry."

The "guinea pig" study was only one of several reports Markey released during the weeks before the November election. Those reports, which dealt with nuclear testing, the Hanford nuclear weapons plant and related issues, also received limited attention. "I had so many things I wanted to get out," he says. "But it was like sowing seeds on the pavement."

Besides Markey's blitz, the media had other events to contend with, such as the upcoming congressional elections, Ronald Reagan's Iceland summit with Mikhail Gorbachev and the president's approval of an $11.7 billion budget reduction measure.

Still, Markey says, nuclear proponents chipped away at his radiation report's credibility. "Their argument was my report was a one day story, that it was old news," he says. "But coverage before was only a smattering. Reporters used to tell me the [Reagan] administration was great at killing a story.

"If reporters called 10 [administration] sources, nine of them would say my story wasn't big," Markey says. "In many instances, a reporter goes to an agency and asks if there is going to be action, and if they say no, the story is ended."

Ben Bagdikian, media critic and a former national editor at the Washington Post, says during the Cold War government officials often answered press inquiries with "the kind of blanket response saying you shouldn't publish something because it will damage national security. At times that was true, but sometimes they simply didn't want to be embarrassed. It still happens."

Alvarez, now a special assistant in the DOE's policy office, agrees that the status of U.S.-Soviet relations at the time hindered coverage. "The story surfaced and disappeared," he says, "because there was an implicit concern that it would somehow impede the government's effort in the nuclear arms race."

Another reason for the scant coverage, according to some journalists, was Markey's image as a publicity hound. "Mr. Markey was always a guy that was very much a publicity-conscious congressman," says Kranish of Science Trends. "For that reason, reporters were wary about what he put out not that it was unreliable."

Regardless, says Jerry Wal-dron, who helped research the report and still works for Markey, the study warranted more attention. "There's a qualitative difference between a one-page press release and a 95-page report," he says. "If they thumbed two pages into the report, they would have seen it was well-documented."

Dennis A. Britton, now the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, was a top editor at the Los Angeles Times when the Markey study came out. "I don't remember the other news demands at the time of the report," he says. "It may not have been clear what its dimensions were. It's just that we have so many demands. Some things are hard to see for the news events that they are."

In 1987, unaware of the Science Trends article or the Markey report, Eileen Welsome stumbled upon a footnote while researching declassified documents on an Air Force dump containing irradiated animal remains. The note referred to the experiment Arthur Kranish had reported 11 years earlier.

Welsome wanted to find out the identities of the 18 subjects of the experiment, but it wasn't part of her job description. "My paper's no different than any other," she says. "I told my editors about the experiment and they said, 'That's quite a story, but you're the neighborhoods reporter.' " She initially had to research it on her own time.

First she reviewed publicly available records, mostly at the University of New Mexico's library and its government documents division. It was a year before Welsome found a reference to Markey's "guinea pig" report on a database.

Welsome filed her first FOIA request with the Energy Department in 1989. The department responded with three skimpy documents. The Tribune appealed to the department without success, so she shelved the project. More than two years later, after a fellowship at Stanford, Welsome resumed her search. Tribune lawyers filed new FOIA requests, but the agency repeatedly delayed or denied them.

Obtaining material for the three-day series was a matter of pursuing obscure clues about people only identified by the government with code letters and numbers. Welsome tracked down the widow of a deceased man from Italy, Texas, and found the family of an elderly woman referred to as "Charlton died 198?" on a handwritten note buried among DOE documents.

On November 15, the first day of the series, the Tribune ran a front page preview to a 16-page insert carrying Welsome's stories. The next two days the paper published 12- and 16-page tabloid inserts.

Few news organizations showed interest. Welsome was dumbfounded. "It was very quiet in New Mexico when that series broke," she says. "It kind of left me doubting. I was thinking, 'Am I wrong about this? Is this story as big as I think it is?' "

The morning Albuquerque Journal, the Tribune's 123,000-circulation JOA partner, ignored the story initially, picking it up weeks later. On the second day of the series, the local AP bureau sent out a 400-word piece, while Scripps-Howard, which owns the Tribune, carried a 1,300-word piece on its wire service. The New York Times ran the AP story on page 30. USA Today ran a one-paragraph blurb. The Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post didn't report it at all.

Then came Hazel O'Leary's December 7 press conference. O'Leary had originally scheduled the conference to announce that she was going to declassify many of the department's records. She also planned to reveal that the government had conducted 204 secret underground nuclear tests over a 45-year period.

The Tribune series landed on O'Leary's desk before the press conference, thanks to her environmental counsel and chief of staff, Dan W. Reicher. An anti-nuclear activist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1980s, Reicher told his boss about the stories and O'Leary took note. She decided to mention the plutonium experiment during the press conference and pledge to release information on nearly 800 other subjects of radiation tests.

Kranish says the timing was a fortuitous coincidence: "The Tribune series happened to fit nicely in her agenda. It hit at the right time to sort of support O'Leary's declassification plans."

Even so, O'Leary didn't say much about the experiments. The Tribune had assigned its Washington correspondent, Karen MacPher-son, to attend O'Leary's announcement. "The experiments were a very small part of her presentation," MacPherson says. "She sort of glossed over them. It was lucky for us it was a press conference. It wasn't until other reporters heard what I was asking that they started to pay attention."

Reporters perked up during the question-and-answer period when MacPherson asked the energy secretary for more information about the plutonium experiment. O'Leary responded that the experiment wasn't the focus of her presentation and that reporters could follow up after the conference.

Over the next few days, the story was picked up by the network evening newscasts and featured on the front pages of the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. It was finally news after 17 years.

"It's unfortunate that it took a government official to break the story," Welsome says.

Alvarez of the DOE says that's usually how it works. "The press isn't in the position to legitimize a major issue by filing a story," he says. "The media only gear up when something becomes legitimized by a prestigious figure in government or science." But, he adds, news flow goes both ways. "By the continuous reporting now, the media have provided a drumbeat for policymakers to follow."

There were journalists, including some of Britton's staff at the Chicago Sun-Times, who considered Welsome's story to be old news. "The coverage started off rather tentatively in the mainstream press," he says. "In talking with my own editors, I don't think they initially grasped the depth of it."

How long will the media stay interested in a story they have dropped repeatedly over the last two decades? As some journalists and activists point out, there are still plenty of fresh angles to be explored. They say, for example, the media should closely monitor the DOE's efforts to open files and its recommendations for victim compensation. They also suggest re-porters investigate the scientists and officials responsible for the experiments, some of whom are still in positions of authority.

DOE spokeswoman Mary Freeman hopes the press will be patient with the declassification process. "It's difficult because a lot of the material is still being located," she says.

Meanwhile, the Albuquerque Tribune has stepped up its coverage. Welsome now has three other reporters and a researcher working with her to explore new leads. "We in the media should be cutting our own trail," says Welsome, "not letting the government set our agenda." l