The Shame of the Nation

December 21, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- "Paranoia'' is defined by Webster as ''a tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excess or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others.''

You hear from a lot of paranoiacs in my business -- or you think you do. Month after month, year after year, reporters and columnists get dozens, sometimes hundreds, of letters from men and women claiming someone or something, usually the U.S. government, is out to get them personally.

''Letters'' is often a euphemism for thick folders and dossiers of old correspondence and ravings about plots involving John Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe and Wall Street bankers, Jews, Masons, the pope, mad scientists, ex-wives, government killer squads, and alleged nuclear implants and behavior devices involving the military or the CIA.

Almost always you throw them away. You know if you answer, even if you just acknowledge receipt, more packets will come -- ** and your name will be part of the next file.

But you look at them first, remembering the old line that even paranoids sometimes have real enemies. And instincts nag at you, saying something in those stacks is probably true. It is not so much that truth is stranger than fiction, but that fiction is based on truth -- and so are some of the ravings.

In Washington, I remember the nervous laughter of young reporters when a famous editor told them that late on quiet nights in the 1950s you could hear screams of pain coming from old warehouses along the Potomac River in Georgetown where the CIA was supposed to teach torture techniques to the police and military of the Free World.

And now this Christmas season, in a sickening set of revelations, does turn out that the paranoids were right about a good deal of nuclear experimentation and U.S. government involvement in murder -- and official lying and cover-up.

The National Security Archive and the Center for International Policy -- two of the kind of cantankerous Washington organizations sometimes dismissed as ''paranoiac'' -- released recently declassified government documents showing that as late as three years ago the U.S. military was involved in the organization and training of ''death squads'' in El Salvador.

''My worst fears are realized,'' wrote the U.S. ambassador, William Walker, in an October 1990 cable from the embassy in San Salvador to the State Department in Washington. He had learned that the U.S. training of anti-communist Salvadorans called Los Patrioticos ''was being used as a cover for death-squad activities.''

In our government, it seems, they lie to each other, too. Then they lie to us. In this case, the death-squad activity had been covered up by careful ''sanitization'' -- blacking out the incriminating parts -- of U.S. documents originally released in the 1980s in an effort to show that death squads no longer existed. The fuller versions were released only under pressure from U.N. investigations resisted by the U.S. government.

Then, in the last few days, government and press reports (including investigation by Sen. John Glenn and the Albuquerque Tribune) have proved that some of the most ''paranoid'' of suspicions about the government are true. The United States did test the effects of nuclear radiation on innocent and unsuspecting Americans. There were more atomic-bomb tests than ever admitted. Radiation was released into the atmosphere in the 1950s so that its effects on people could be secretly tested before it was used on enemy soldiers. Americans were injected with plutonium without being told. Human guinea pigs. Nazi stuff.

A set of headlines in the New York Times was amazing, shocking credibility, decency and sanity:

''Nuclear Scientists Irradiated People in Secret Research''

''A New Light on the Past''

''Energy Secretary Plans to Open Files Covering 3 Decades of Experiments on Humans''

In the past? At the risk of sounding paranoid, I doubt it. Thousands of people with impressive public and private titles had to lie for years to cover up such activity. It is the shame of the nation, a stain on the heart of America.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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