Catching Lightning In A Bottle p. 9

By: George Garneau How a small New Mexico paper excavated a story that has rattled the federal government and reverberated throughout the world sp.

AFTER IT DETAILED how the U.S. government used citizens as guinea pigs to test the effects of radioactive injections, the 35,000-circulation Albuquerque Tribune found itself the center of government attention in Washington and media attention throughout the world.
Everybody wanted to know how the afternoon paper, the weak partner of a joint operation located an hour by car south of the birthplace of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, broke a story that sent Clinton administration officials scrambling to come clean about the experiments.
Conducted in an atmosphere of paranoia and fear at the dawn of the nuclear age in the late 1940s, the experiments were disclosed ? their existence was, at least ? in congressional hearings in 1986, but almost nothing was known about them because most records remained classified. No more.
The Tribune exploded the secrecy in three tabloid sections written by reporter Eileen Welsome and published Nov. 15-17. The series resulted from six years of sifting through scientific reports and records acquired through the Freedom of Information Act; interviews with relatives of victims; and sleuthing to piece together a puzzle the secrecy of which the government has guarded for nearly 50 years.
For the past six months or so, Welsome worked full time on the series, which gave the nation's first public accounting of the names and stories of three of the 18 human guinea pigs ? all dead and identified in reports only by code names.
By talking with their families, doctors and friends, Welsome confirmed that contrary to current scientific practices, the three did not give informed consent to experiments in which they were injected with radioactive plutonium, the active ingredient in atom bombs and one of the most toxic substances on earth.
The U.S. government conducted the experiments to find out about the effects on humans of radioactive substances that it was building into its nuclear arsenal. The subjects were examined later in their lives and even after their deaths; researchers went so far as to collect the radioactive ashes of one man after his corpse was cremated.
Welsome reported that several doctors who administered injections died of radioactivity-induced leukemia even before some subjects of the experiments.
While scientists involved in the experiments defended their methods and the importance of their research, even some of them have questioned their ethics, and others have compared the experiments with those conducted in Nazi concentration camps.
One sidebar, headlined "The cover-up continues," outlined how the Energy Department stonewalled by refusing to release information as late as 1989 and even after Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary last spring vowed to release records.
When the story was picked up by the Associated Press and virtually every paper in the country during December, pressure increased for the Energy Department to tell the whole truth about nuclear experiments on humans.
O'Leary has said she was shocked and appalled at the experiments. She has promised to lift the veil of secrecy and has ordered a review of the records. But disclosure involves potential legal problems because victims and survivors of victims could sue.
Tribune editor Tim Gallagher said O'Leary refused repeated requests for interviews before the stories were published and her aides repeatedly denied requests for information.
"All the time we researched, we tried to get interviews with Hazel O'Leary, but she never consented, and her lawyers blocked us at every turn," Gallagher said.
O'Leary recently told the New York Times of her reaction when an aide in November said the Tribune planned to blow the lid off the experiments: "I said to him, 'Let's get it out. Just throw it on the pile.' It was another piece in our work to come clean."
Gallagher found it ironic that O'Leary, who had evaded interviews and whose department had sat on information, had become a champion of disclosure and publicly was crediting the Tribune.
As press disclosures about the experiments mounted, Washington scrambled to take the high ground. The White House asked the Public Health Service, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Veterans Affairs, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Pentagon to investigate their involvement.
Meanwhile, in Albuquerque, media from throughout the world were calling to request interviews, documents and sources; the latter is where the Tribune drew the line, Gallagher said.
The TV news magazine Now sent a crew to interview Welsome, and the paper has received more than 200 requests for interviews, information and reprints from news organizations in such places as Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France and Russia. And self-described victims of government tests were calling daily.
"I'm trying to remind myself I'm still a newspaper editor and not an interview," Gallagher said after finishing a call from the Washington Post.
Welsome stumbled on the story six years ago in an animal toxicology report that referred to earlier experiments. In many cases, public records provided no more than bare threads that needed to be woven together with other facts to produce a picture. "She started pulling threads and six years later, here's what we produced," Gallagher said. "We were kind of blown away by it like everybody else was." He described Welsome, who had done three or four major projects for the paper, as a prototypical investigative reporter who doggedly tracked leads.
Information came slowly and with difficulty, but during the years, the Tribune has accumulated more than 12 boxes of material, much of it blacked out. The volume and complexity of the information were such that a scientific researcher was hired to help interpret it.
In one case, Welsome discovered one victim was a black man who had lost a leg, while another document referred to his doctor in Italy, Texas. She asked officials there about an 80-year-old man of that description and was given the name of Elmer Allen. Another time, a California genealogist traced local records for the family of house painter Albert Stevens after Welsome found out that he owned a home in Healdsburg, Calif.
A major research study was done on the human radiation experiments, but it remains classified, Gallagher said.
In an editorial after the series, the Tribune chastised the federal government for its "shameful" and "un-American" behavior in deceiving the victims about the danger of the experiments and in deceiving the public by withholding records.
"There is absolutely no cover-up," Energy Department spokesman Sam Grizzle said in a brief interview in which he declined to comment on the Tribune's charges of stonewalling. Grizzle, who earlier told the Tribune that he had "no knowledge of this whatsoever," said the agency was "engaged in a massive effort to gather records and data" on the radiation experiments on humans.
He said information will be reviewed by an independent agency with respect to privacy, ethics and the rights of victims' families. Based on those considerations, "we will make public all the information we can," he said, adding that it is not the agency's role to disclose the names to the press.
"The process is ongoing," Grizzle said. "We are not trying to cover up anything."
Gallagher said the story of the experiments is "a story about trust. I like to think you can trust the government of the United States of America. Clearly, you can't. The way they covered up this story shows you can't trust the government to act in the best interests of its citizens."
His advice to newspapers that "catch lightning in a bottle, like we did" by committing acts of journalism heard 'round the world is: Hire a public relations firm to handle the media calls.


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