Stranger than fiction

How far will a government go to be number one? In his new book, Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans (W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999), Jonathan D. Moreno — who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Biomedical Ethics — penetrates classified documents and well-tended state secrets to uncover some of the most horrifying experiments ever conducted in the name of science.

The experiments perpetrated on concentration-camp victims during World War II, though hardly a secret anymore, are of course mentioned, along with startling revelations from the trials of the sadistic Nazi “doctors”: Moreno recounts defense lawyer Robert Servatius’ attempt to use an experiment the United States had conducted on its own prisoners (injecting 800 of them with malaria) to weaken the prosecution’s case, though ultimately that incident could not compare with the Nazi atrocities inflicted on millions.

But many more examples of American shame lurk between the covers of Moreno’s book, including: The irradiation of prisoners’ testicles in Oregon and Washington state penitentiaries, from 1963 to 1973; the irradiation of oatmeal at Fernald School, a home for mentally retarded children in Massachusetts, in the ’40s and ’50s (which resulted in a $1.85 million lawsuit after the disgrace came to national attention in the mid-’90s); the injection of plutonium into low-income hospital patients in the ’40s, to determine how close association with the element would affect those working on developing atomic bombs; the Army’s intentional unleashing of Bacillus globigii bacteria into New York City subway tunnels in 1966, in order to study the potential biological weapon’s dispersal patterns. And there are countless other examples.

Due in part to a wholesale cynicism regarding government conduct that peaked during the Vietnam War era, great strides have been made in protecting citizens (especially those in the military) from such experiments, according to Moreno. But he is careful to say that some controlled human experimentation on willing volunteers is still necessary — especially in the military — given the threat of biological and chemical warfare from foreign terrorists.

“[Experimentation] has to be done with a minimum of risk, and there has to be [public] trust. Someday, we may have that. … But there is a tragic element in this, in that there will never be a set of rules that can [satisfy] everybody,” Moreno noted in a recent telephone interview. What follows is more of that conversation:

Mountain Xpress: Did you encounter much government resistance in researching Undue Risk?

Jonathan Moreno: No. … You have to understand the context through which I got into [the research]. I was staffed with the President’s Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, and along with the executive order the president signed establishing the Advisory Committee, he also ordered the declassification of all relevant documents. The whole federal bureaucracy was under orders, [including] the six agencies that were particularly implicated: the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the CIA, NASA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Veterans’ Administration. So there was no resistance at all. Quite the contrary. The people I dealt with, especially in the Pentagon, were falling over themselves [to be helpful]. Of course, they were under orders — but also, they were generally interested, and offended at the thought that their forebears might have been abused [in human experiments]. Also, there was concern about inaccurate information getting in the press, and [the book] giving the impression that the armed forces had deliberately abused its members in the past — had used them as guinea pigs. So there was certainly concern about misrepresentation, and I tried to be very careful. [But] the reality was that some of what was done was harmful, was wrong, and involved people in the armed forces. But each of the cases has a somewhat different flavor to it.

MX: For every case like Fernald that causes a public scandal and receives widespread media coverage, are there many more such cases that may never come to light?

JM: I’m very confident that we don’t know all that might be in government archives concerning biological- and chemical-warfare experiments and activities. The Advisory Committee was really [concerned with] radiation experiments; we didn’t really get to go on to biological and chemical experiments. Certainly, when we started to look at the radiation experiments, we uncovered a larger number of [them] than we knew to be the case before we started, so I think it’s reasonable to suppose that the same would be [true] for biological and chemical experiments. The major source of information for biological and chemical experiments happened 25 years ago, when Sen. Frank Church established hearings on secret government activities. That’s when CIA Director Richard Helms — much to the chagrin of his colleagues — released a 600- or 700-page document outlining, for example, the CIA’s LSD experiments. [During the Cold War, the issue of mind control was of particular interest to the U.S. government; as part of a project called MKULTRA, LSD was secretly given to unsuspecting citizens, including restaurant workers and military personnel]. So it’s been 25 years since a serious effort was made to look at biological and chemical warfare. When the National Academy of Sciences, five years ago, published its analysis of the mustard-gas experiments involving several thousand sailors in the second World War, they also concluded that not all of the information about these activities had [come out]. It’s probably not the case that there’s anyone deliberately holding back, but it’s very expensive to go through all of this paper, [and] very time-consuming. Unless there is a political will to do it, it just doesn’t get done. In the case of the radiation experiments, there was a public scandal [which] motivated [the attention].

MX: [The following question refers to Marine Michael Metzig’s recent dishonorable discharge for refusing to take an FDA-approved anthrax vaccine. To date, 200 military personnel have similarly refused to be vaccinated.] Although receiving the anthrax vaccination does not qualify as an experiment, do you feel the Metzig incident, and others like it, point to a growing dissension in this area?

JM: The Uniform Code of Military Justice says that you have to accept any kind of medical prevention that will make you combat-ready. That’s not only for your own protection, so you can do your job, but so that other people that you have to be working with and supporting are not put in harm’s way. Having said that, there is a question, I think, about whether the Uniform Code applies in peacetime, and there’s also a question about whether it applies to reservists. Furthermore, in the case of anthrax, although the vaccine appears to be protective if given soon enough, it’s entirely possible that a terrorist group — knowing what kind of anthrax strain people were being immunized against — could develop a mutant strain. So the dose response for a range of variations to the virus is limited. It doesn’t make inoculation futile, by any means, but it raises a question as to whether it’s really necessary, under the circumstances. … What [Metzig and the other protesters] are responding to is not the genuine effects of the vaccination. I think what they’re really concerned about, what’s influencing them, is the whole controversy about the Gulf War Syndrome [the name given to a set of chronic debilitating symptoms that continues to plague soldiers who were injected with pyridostigmine bromide, or PB (an antidote to nerve gas), during the Gulf War]. Some of them have been quoted as saying, “We know that these people were used as guinea pigs, and we don’t want to fall into that again” — but does [the Metzig incident] suggest a trend? I think the modern soldier is much more inclined to be skeptical about authority than was true decades ago. One problem, I think, that the armed forces [have] now is this legacy of sloppy record-keeping, which is part of the reason we’re in this fix with the Gulf War Syndrome. Who exactly got [vaccinated with] what, and how much [did they get]? So they’re paying the price for that, and now there’s really a problem of trust.

MX: You note that people’s attitudes toward scientific experiments on humans tend to vary, depending on the general social climate of a country at a given time. For instance, Americans were much more inclined to support the idea during World War II, for patriotic reasons, and were bitterly against it during the Cold War and Vietnam eras, when dissatisfaction with government ran high. In your research, did you find that any particular sentiment about the issue reigns today — or have opinions become more polarized?

JM: It’s sort of ironic, actually. In the civilian world, there’s more trust about medical experimentation than perhaps there should be, in the sense that people think that you can’t get state-of-the-art health care unless you’re in a medical experiment or trial. In some areas, that’s true: For HIV it’s been true, for example. In other areas, like cancer [research], it’s not necessarily true. If you’re in what’s called a Phase I [cancer] study, where they’re just testing how toxic a drug is and not testing to see if it’s effective in shrinking a tumor, for example, then that’s not true. So in the civilian world today, I would say … people are very willing to say yes [to medical research]. In the military world, there’s a lot more skepticism. It’s ironic, because right now, the protections in the military are greater than they are in the civilian world. There are more levels of review. It’s sort of paradoxical to me. But one has to say, in fairness, that most of the [military] medical research going on today that I talk about in the book is on healthy people, healthy volunteers … whereas many people in the civilian world looking for help are sick, and so they have a desire to find the best treatment they can. In the process, they are somewhat less critical than I would like them to be about what they’re getting into.

MX:You also make a point of saying that the military personnel at Fort Detrick [a facility in Maryland for Medical Research Volunteer Subjects, or MRVS] are not the “passive guinea pigs” one might be led to expect. Nevertheless, did you find any unifying personality traits among these willing subjects?

JM: That’s probably fair. You might say it’s somebody who’s got a level of intellectual curiosity, a level of courage that I might not have [laughs] — I think there’s probably something to that. On the other hand, in some places that are near a major medical center, some people, like unemployed artists, will sign up for a drug study for [which they may receive up to] $2,000. They probably have the same personality type, plus they have the manipulation factor of the money. People who volunteer to be subjects of studies might have some kind of personality structure that other people don’t have, and as long as that personality type isn’t exploited … as long as people aren’t going out and looking for people who have this “Type Z” personality, then I think it’s OK. And I wouldn’t rule out real scientific curiosity. … The people at Camp Detrick are junior scientists, and they are really interested in what is going on.

MX: Given the rate at which technology is advancing these days, is it ever possible that computer models will be able to replace human subjects in scientific experiments?

JM: Never. Well, at least not in our lifetime. Not until these computers are science-fiction-style androids with a psychology chip [and] an emotion chip — because so much of what is important occurs [during] combat, where a psychological reaction can react with the drugs. For example, we just had this study that came out by the Rand Corporation [a research company founded in 1948 that focuses on matters of national security] about PB. The conclusion that Rand reached … was that, combined with the stress of combat, PB could indeed have caused the kind of symptoms we are seeing that it caused [in Gulf War veterans]. You’re never going to get [a revelation like] that out of a computer. But interestingly, you could never do an ethical experiment to test for that [kind of reaction], either. So you’re sort of between a rock and a hard place.

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