Radiation probe: no politics, please

January 05, 1994

With the exception of some gratuitous political jibes at the Reagan and Bush administrations, the Clinton White House is moving properly to expose government radiation experiments on unsuspecting citizens during the Cold War era. It has set up an inter-agency task force faced with the months-long task of sorting through thousands of records to determine how many people may have suffered injury and how such wrongs should be righted.

At issue is a potential multi-billion dollar liability that it would be up to Congress to fund. That is why politics should not intrude into a matter involving tests over three decades conducted under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

In 1986, when a congressional panel first reported on citizens exploited as nuclear "guinea pigs," the East-West conflict was still intense. In that context, the Reagan administration shied away from a subject that would have been embarrassing internationally. Energy Secretary Hazel R. O'Leary, who deserves high marks for pursuing this sensitive subject, has complained that "in the summer of 1992 the Bush administration definitely knew this stuff and they could have declassified the documentation and they chose not to." True enough, but this was in mid-campaign. Would Bill Clinton have done otherwise?

It's time to drop the politics and stop White House bragging about "stepping up to the plate" on this issue. Circumstances, both domestic and foreign, are now conducive for the kind of thorough government investigation any decent society deserves and should demand.

Although a Central Intelligence Agency official was notably not present when the inter-agency panel held its first meeting Monday, the CIA must surely be brought into the probe along with the Department of Energy (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission), the Defense Department, the Veterans Administration and NASA. A member of the Federation of American Scientists has charged that the CIA was involved in radiation experiments and destroyed thousands of documents in 1973.

Although the White House has been much less committal than Secretary O'Leary in asserting the government's obligation to compensate those injured by government tests, it has built up a head of public indignation that should make such payments unavoidable. What will be required, however, is careful vetting to make sure claimants are genuine, be they medical patients or workers in government projects or "downwinders" affected by atmospheric testing.

It is reassuring that the administration has asked Dr. Ruth R. Faden, a medical ethicist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, to provide guidance on the moral dilemmas that are bound to arise in this investigation.

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