Commentary

Government Secrets Can Be Pretty Killer

What can you say, dear, after you say I’m sorry … for deliberately infecting you with syphilis as part of a secret government experiment?

Secretary of State Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius probably wondered as much a week ago Friday, after having to issue an awkward joint apology for just such a program — funded by the U.S. government from 1946 to 1948.

History shows that when government officials operate behind an impenetrable veil of secrecy, they’re capable of appalling abuses.”

In that experiment — recently unearthed by a diligent academic — the feds infected hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners and mental patients. When diseased prostitutes failed to do the trick, the docs injected the bacteria directly, via spinal puncture or penis scrapes. A third of the victims never received proper treatment.

This was the kind of news paranoiacs live for: “conspiracy theorists, fire up your mimeographs,” Reason’s Radley Balko joked.

Alas, the Guatemala syphilis experiment was hardly unique. History shows that when government officials operate behind an impenetrable veil of secrecy, they’re capable of appalling abuses.

Consider:

  • In Cold War-era radiation experiments, the U.S. government paid scientists to irradiate prisoners’ testicles and give radioactive beverages to pregnant women seeking free health care. On a 1963 memorandum proposing the former study, a researcher wrote: “I’m for support at the requested level, as long as we are not liable. I worry about possible carcinogenic effects.”
  • In a 1950 germ-warfare test, the U.S. military sprayed a massive bacterial cloud along the San Francisco Bay area, using Serratia marcescens, an agent they thought to be harmless.

    Shortly thereafter, 11 people checked into Stanford Hospital with a rare form of Serriata-induced pneumonia. One of them, retired pipe fitter Edward Nevin, died.

    When the truth came out in 1976, the experiment’s commanding officer commented that it would’ve been “completely impossible to conduct such a test trying to obtain informed consent.”
  • Informed consent complicated Cold War objectives as well, top military officials concluded in 1962, so they devised a plan for staged “pretexts which would provide justification for U.S. military intervention in Cuba.” The “Operation Northwoods” memo envisioned “exploding a few plastic bombs in carefully chosen spots,” and “a ‘Remember the Maine’ incident,” sinking an American ship in Guantanamo Bay.

    Phony casualty lists would cause “a helpful wave of national indignation.” Luckily, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara vetoed the plan, which had been unanimously approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Wait, do I sound paranoid? Sorry, but right here under my tinfoil hat, I’ve got the clippings to back these stories up.

The radiation experiments made the front page of the Los Angeles Times (Jan. 8. 1994). For the germ warfare test, see the Wall Street Journal (Oct. 22. 2001) and the San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 31, 2004).

You can get a copy of the Northwoods memo from George Washington University’s National Security Archive at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20010430.

Listen, I’m a patriotic, nonparanoid American. I don’t lose much sleep worrying that today’s feds are irradiating people and giving them diseases in the name of public health and national security.

That’s not because I think human nature has recently been transformed. It’s because, as the Cold War waned, Americans recognized that sunlight’s a powerful disinfectant, and we passed laws reining in executive secrecy.

In the wake of 9/11, though, the last two administrations have fought hard to reverse that progress. Just before the Clinton/Sebelius apology, President Obama’s legal team invoked the “state secrets” privilege to shield scrutiny of its plan to assassinate an American citizen abroad.

“I love my country, but I fear my government,” a popular Tea Party sign proclaims. That’s the right attitude for a patriot — now, and in the years to come.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency.