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The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory's Archives and Records Office's Role in the US Department of Energy's Human Radiation Experiment Records Search and Retrieval Project

Lori L. Hefner
Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory

Openness: A Cultural Shift

Without an open and thorough examination of the record, the revelation that the government conducted secret experiments on its own peoplehas the potential to increase distrust of government more than anything since Watergate or the war in Vietnam. But the fresh winds of truth from [the Department of Energy] could help to reverse the long decline of confidence in the government and in democratic processes -- Russell Watson.

On November 8, 1993 I received a phone call from Albuquerque Tribune writer Eileen Welsome. Welsome had been researching a 1940s issue with the assistance of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) Archives and Records Office periodically for several months. She said that she had completed her research, the article was ready to go to press, and that the attorneys from the Albuquerque Tribune were going to confront U.S. Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary with the findings. I had a sense that Welsome's research was very significant and very sensitive because she elected not to disclose the essence of her topic. We talked for several minutes about the pending release of her investigative reporting. I clearly remember telling Welsome to 'be careful.' She asked me what I meant. I said obliquely: 'Remember who you are dealing with. This is the former Atomic Energy Commission.' I had read accounts about those who have challenged the U.S. Department of Energy (hereafter, DOE) and the reported lengths the DOE went to discredit its detractors.

As Bernard Shaw stated in a CNN special entitled 'America's Nuclear Shame,' the DOE is the 'long shadowy part of the Federal Government. Its main job is to manage this nation's nuclear interest.' During the Cold War, the department had unprecedented powers to operate in secret. It used the cloak of secrecy 'to protect not only its operations, but also its power and influence--at almost any cost.' Welsome was definitely calling into question, if not preparing to humiliate publicly, that operation.

I worried about what was to transpire. Using past organizational actions as a guide, I thought that the Secretary was likely to let Welsome's story run and then die its own quick media death. I fully anticipated that if a press officer responded it would be with the perfunctory: 'The U.S. Department of Energy neither confirms nor denies the story.' I hoped Welsome would not be harmed or professionally besmirched.

When Welsome and I ended our conversation, I was full of adrenaline. I dashed off to the University of California, Berkeley to teach my archives and records management class. I told the students that something potentially very significant was about to be released to the public, and it would draw heavily from archives and records. Since classes were soon to be over, I advised them to watch their newspapers.

On November 15, 16, and 17, 1993 the Albuquerque Tribune ran a 44-page, Sunday magazine-style, article entitled, 'The Plutonium Story.' The editor's leading paragraph stated:

Some compare it to the Nazi war atrocities. Others say it had to be done to understand the dangers of a powerful new element that launched the Atomic Age. Eighteen ordinary people were injected with plutonium without their informed consent, and their names have been kept hidden. Until now.

In the ensuing weeks Welsome's research sounded a bell that rang loudly a cross the nation, especially in Washington, D.C.

Two and a half weeks later, on December 4, 1993, unbeknownst to the nation but later recounted by the head of the Department of Energy Declassification Office, Secretary O'Leary gathered her 35 most senior executives within the Department of Energy in a room around a large conference table in preparation for a major press briefing. She made a personal statement about how shocked she was to learn about the eighteen people who had been injected with plutonium as a part of the Manhattan Engineering District's effort to learn about the effects of the newly discovered element on human metabolism. Secretary O'Leary asked each executive present to state if they were aware of the experiments, when they had learned of the experiments, and why they had not come forward with the information. Roger Heusser, head of the DOE Office of Declassification, said the meeting was full of emotion and, when he recalled it three months later to a group of historians, he could not hold back the tears.

On December 7, 1993, three weeks after the Welsome article was published, the Secretary of Energy proved to be far different than her predecessors. Secretary O'Leary conducted a press conference to disclose that there had been 204 secret nuclear tests since 1945, including 18 carried out during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. She went on to disclose that DOE facilities held 33.5 metric tons of stockpiled plutonium. This information alone required O'Leary to struggle with the Pentagon through 17 drafts before she was allowed to make the announcements. She also made known a plan to allocate resources to declassify 32 million pages of documents that spanned the history of the Cold War. All three announcements were bold and stunned the media. Activists had been struggling for years to obtain information from the DOE. Even Congress had tried to obtain information but had failed.

Then Secretary O'Leary dropped the bombshell that set off an unanticipated firestorm. She said 'I am saddened and appalled to learn that individuals unwittingly were injected with plutonium as a part of the Manhattan Engineering District's nuclear worker protection research.' Secretary O'Leary was referring to Eileen Welsome's research where she recounted the history of a project where eighteen people were injected with plutonium, most of whom appeared not to have known that they were the subject of experiments. Welsome had successfully researched and disclosed the identities of five of the research subjects; their personal stories were most gripping. Secretary O'Leary also said she wanted to 'right the wrongs' of those experimented on and stated that she would commit resources from the Department of Energy to research, find, and make available all the department's information on the human plutonium injections as well as all other human radiation experiments.

Such was the official beginning of the most intense, exhilarating, emotionally draining, and rewarding project I have participated in during my twenty years as an archivist and records manager. Welsome went into temporary seclusion, obtained a book contract to expand her research, and in April 1994, she was feted with a Pulitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for her investigative reporting. The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Archives and Records Office, which customarily runs at a fevered pitch, was catapulted into finding and sharing what it had on the plutonium injections and human radiation experiments. The Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) had long referred to itself as the 'birthplace of nuclear medicine.' The Laboratory was about to pay a high price for that title. We were also the home institution to one of the most controversial scientists Welsome referred to in her article. For years researchers had been trying to obtain more information on Dr. Joseph G. Hamilton, and noted historians had conveyed to us in Archives and Records Office that this man typified the imageof the 'mad scientist' who was more devoted to the possibilities of his research than to the value and comfort of patients or human subjects. It was Hamilton who served as principal investigator on the team that injected three people with plutonium at the University of California Medical Center, later named the University of California, San Francisco. In time, the LBL Human Radiation Experiment research team would prove that the plutonium injections were only a small part of Dr. Hamilton's career.

In addition to researching specific information regarding nuclear medicine, the Secretary of Energy was calling for something that every archivist feels in their bones--she wanted the DOE (formerly the Atomic Energy Commission and the Manhattan Engineering District) to be open with the American people about what this agency did with its public trust. Secretary O'Leary has said in many public appearances that the DOE has to stop being at war with its citizens and must rebuild the public's confidence in this 19 billion dollar a year enterprise by giving the public a full accounting of its past. Secretary O'Leary labeled this her 'Openness Initiative'.

President Clinton was so impressed with O'Leary's bold steps, he took that he formed the Interagency Working Group made up of the cabinet level heads from federal agencies that had sponsored human radiation experiments. Those agencies included the Department of Energy, Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services, the Central Intelligence Agency, National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. President Clinton then issued an executive order creating an independent Presidential Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments (ACHRE). The Advisory Committee is comprised of distinguished ethicists, physicians, scientists, lawyers, and a citizen member. The Advisory Committee reports to the Interagency Working Group. The Advisory Committee's charter directed them to evaluate whether: 1) there was a clear medical purpose for the experiments; 2) appropriate medical follow-up was conducted, and 3) the experiments' design and administration adequately met ethical and scientific standards, including standards of informed consent.

Secretary O'Leary created the Office of Human Radiation Experiments to lead, plan, and oversee DOE's 20,000 employees and 140,000 contractors in their search for pertinent records. Special Counsel and Director Ellyn Weiss was appointed to head the office. Fortuitously, the U.S. Department of Energy drew on the leadership and professional guidance of William G. LeFurgy and Eleanor Melamed. Both individuals are superbly trained archivists and seasoned professionals who had worked at the National Archives for several years and within the last three years transferred to the U.S. Department of Energy. LeFurgy and Melamed lead the effort to write what came to be titled 'Guidance for Records Inventory and Retrieval Concerning Human Radiation Experiments'. The abbreviated title became The Guidance Document.

The Guidance Document outlined the scope of the project, gave priorities on what was to be researched, inventoried, described, and delineated what was to occur when significant documents were found on human radiation experiments. The document instructed readers on the importance of maintaining and capturing the context of information. Other details such as how the most relevant documents were to be photocopied, and how provenance information was to be added to the photocopy while assuring that all original documents remained in original order where they could be further researched if necessary were also included. The Guidance Document attempted to inform non-archivists how to conduct a records inventory and how to describe records series. The document advocated and outlined a procedure for expediting declassification of pertinent national security documents. Emphasis was also placed on the urgent need to be thorough and responsive to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The purpose of the records inventory and document search was to locate records that substantiate human radiation experiments between the years 1944 and 1974. All federal agencies, including the Department of Energy, were to use the following statement as their scope of work:

Experiments on individuals involving intentional exposure to ionizing radiation (excluding routine clinical procedures) and experiments involving intentional environmental releases of radiation that were designed to test human health effects of ionizing radiation or were designed to test the extent of human exposure to ionizing radiation.

As someone who has read and tried to implement thirty years worth of DOE and predecessor agency records directives, I can testify that this was an unusually direct, logical, and comprehensive set of instructions issued by DOE headquarters. An archivist, historian, or records manager could read the guidance, understand its intent, and design a plan of work with milestones. That is exactly what the LBL Archives and Records Office did.

Instead of proceeding chronologically, I will direct my remarks toward telling you what was required of and accomplished by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory Archives and Records Office. The following is a list detailing milestones and accomplishments:

This committee was responsible to the Laboratory Director for the complete cooperation and compliance of the Laboratory with Secretary O'Leary's initiative. It was important that the Committee include people from diverse parts of the Laboratory, such as upper management, the division head from the division where the records originated, the head of the Laboratory's human subjects review panel, Legal Counsel, and the Public Information Officer. A team approach was critical to addressing all the concerns in an initiative as far-reaching as this. Openness is important and must be handled in a balanced, thoughtful way.

In July 1994, the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory HRE project underwent a thorough two-and-a-half day review. Planning, decision making, and its completed as well as projected deliverables were examined. The Department of Energy's Office of Human Radiation Experiments Special Counsel and Director announced that because LBL had done a superb job in planning, recruiting, training, and organizing professional archivists, because the quality of records series descriptions were so good, and because the selected key documents showed a thorough understanding of what the DOE was trying to accomplish, the LBL group would work as an extension to the DOE Office of Human Radiation Experiments. The Laboratory was pleased to be recognized by headquarters and immediately gave their approval. The OHRE leadership and I negotiated a budget, evaluated competing priorities, and agreed on deliverables with specific timeframes. From October 1, 1994 to April 28, 1995, we served as an adjunct to the DOE while simultaneously maintaining our functions as the Archives and Records Office.

I would like to show by means of example what this research project entailed. The purpose of sharing this list is to illustrate the many different aspects that are all a part of producing coherent research and realizing DOE's Openness Initiative. As an adjunct to the DOE OHRE, in what we call Phase II, we accomplished the following:

This list of activities and accomplishments gives you an overview of what we have accomplished this past year. I would also like to take this opportunity to share with you some of the major accomplishments of the Department of Energy, Office of Human Radiation Experiments. Office of Human Radiation Experiments produced a superb guide entitled Human Radiation Experiments:

There are a myriad of perplexing issues that the nation's human radiation experiments raise, some of which include:

I regret that space will not permit my covering these issues.

In closing I would like to say how much this project has meant to me.

I want to thank Laboratory management for their support. Against their better judgment, they have fought their natural instincts to protect and hold onto information and participated in the 'Openness Initiative.'

I want to say what an honor it has been to work with the extraordinarily talented people who became the LBL Archives and Records Office Human Radiation Records Search and Retrieval Team. They are: Trina Baker, Anna Berge, Nong Chen, Jeannie Cuevas, Ross Decker, Perry Hall, Karen Holmes, Mary Hones, Bonnie Kapus, Roberto Landazuri, Mi-Young Lee, Andrea Mugnier, Gary Novak, Caroline Orozco, John Stoner, Susan Storch.

I have witnessed all of these individuals take on very difficult challenges, study the issues, learn what they needed to, and use their intellectual powers to accomplish extraordinary tasks. I have the greatest respect for these individuals, and I want to tell you and them what an honor it has been for me to have worked with them.

This project has drawn on every aspect of training, knowledge, and experience I have accumulated. It has been the professional challenge of my life. It is also a project that resonates with every professional tenant that I espouse, every political, social, spiritual, and personal value that I hold dear. I know that this team has played a key role in assisting the U.S. Department of Energy in changing the course of its fifty year history. Even if a more conservative, less compassionate tide sweeps the country, this HRE team, and the current DOE-OHRE, has released enough information to stir investigators, journalists, historians, epidemiologists, and public policy makers for decades to come. It will take years for the information to be digested. I also have faith that the 226,800 documents the LBL released to the public in the course of this project will prompt researchers to request additional information from those who did not release as much as we did.

Did we get it all? No. As talented as everyone is, and as hard as everyone worked, we know we did not find every relevant document, but this was not the goal. The goal was to gain intellectual control on relevant records. The future will bring added interest and research to the work that we have been a part of.

Have we made a difference? Yes. I have no doubt that this has been the golden age of openness of information for the U.S. Department of Energy. I am most grateful to have lived to see this day. What I have been a part of has surpassed my deepest wishes for the Department of Energy.

Is the U.S. Department of Energy a federal department that promotes citizen access to information? Changing a bureaucracy this deeply entrenched in secrecy is an enormous undertaking. The Department of Energy leadership has made a valiant attempt to institutionalize the Openness Initiative. Yet ultimately we know that the change must be reinforced by the next administration, Congress, the President, and ultimately the citizens of the United States. It is too early to say if Openness will become an enduring tenant of the Department of Energy.

I would like to close by telling you that my work with the U.S. Department of Energy's Human Radiation Records Search and Retrieval Project has made me think back to the time when I was 19-years-old in 1974. I had just started my first archives job, while an undergraduate in history and political science. While I learned the fundamentals of archives work, I listened and watched as the Judiciary Committee weighed evidence, records, and testimony, in order to judge and possibly impeach the President of the United States. Daily I saw and heard the dramatic impact that records--evidence, if you will--were having. In my heart I knew that records were making a crucial difference. My intuition told me that being an archivist had extraordinary potential for bringing the truth forward, holding people and institutions accountable, and making a positive contribution to people's lives. Experience after experience over the course of my twenty years as an archivist has confirmed this intuition. The Human Radiation Experiment Records Search and Retrieval Project has proven to me in a most poignant way how we archivists can assist others in understanding crucial events that have occurred to the subjects of the experiments and to the nation.

This article is based on the author's keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society of California Archivists (Oakland, CA: 28 April 1995) and was first published in Architext, Volume 5, Number 1, August 1995.

Additional discussion of these issues took place in the SAA 1995 annual meeting program session 'The Human Radiation Experiments Records Search', Saturday, 2 September 1995, featuring speakers Eleanor Melamed and William LeFurgy (both of the US Department of Energy), and author Lori Hefner (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory).

It is possible to visit the Office of Human Radiation Experiments.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 23 April 1997
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate and Denise Sutherland
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 25 February 1998

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Newsletter No. 2, 1995

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