Nov 04 2013

When government hides truth from Americans

Reform Party of California Commentary

A point that the Reform Party of California (RPCA) occasionally mentions regarding normal two-party politics is its disturbing penchant to hide information from Americans. Hiding the truth was a factor in the start and/or conduct of the Vietnam war. It was a factor in the passage of major legislation, e.g., medicare. It may turn out to be a factor in the passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but it is too early to know that yet. It may have been a factor in the 2012 presidential election regarding the Benghazi embassy fiasco in 2012. It arguably was a factor in getting public support for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially Iraq. The list is long and discouraging.

Almost nuked ourselves

And, now it turns out that secrecy hid the risk of building and maintaining America’s nuclear arsenal, especially in the 1950s, 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. During that time, and probably still today, the federal government felt it was best to not bother the American public with information about just how close and how often we were to the accidental detonation of American nuclear warheads on American soil. It turns out that we have darn near nuked ourselves many times and the government had no intention of even mentioning any of it. Maybe they thought it was too trivial to merit a paltry press release. Or maybe, they did not trust the American public enough to be honest about the close calls and risk of a nuclear accident incinerating a U.S. city.

Investigative reporter Eric Schlosser has just published results of a long investigation into nuclear accidents in his book “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety” and what he describes is sobering to say the least.[1] If Schlosser’s findings are basically true, sheer blind, dumb luck has kept us safe so far. To be fair, it appears that modern nuclear weapons are much safer than the earlier weapons. However, putting some faith in that assertion requires trust in the federal government. Is trust warranted?

Why the secrecy?

The RPCA assumes that the federal government chooses to keep such critically important information secret from the public for two main reasons. The first is to protect national security secrets. The second is to hide risk and embarrassment from the public. Obviously, the government will strenuously deny that it would ever do the second, but that denial carries no weight. The federal government has had no compunction about calling everything from illegal activities to staggering incompetence and waste a “secret”. It took 25 years of Freedom of Information Act requests just to force the FBI to reluctantly release John Lennon’s secret files.[2] There were no national security threats there, but there was a great deal of embarrassment and wasted time and money. Unfortunately, the government uses secrecy to hide all kinds of failure and waste.

No basis for trust

Unfortunate as it is, there is no reliable basis for the public to trust the government in matters like this. Sometimes claims of secrecy are valid. Sometimes they are not. If the two-party system had a better track record over recent history, having some sympathy might be justified. Unfortunately, the track record is not good.[3]

What happens if we nuke ourselves?

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a push to develop defenses against biological and radiological weapons. Radiological weapons included thermonuclear weapons, not just dirty bombs. In 2004, congress passed Bioshield legislation and appropriated $5 billion to develop defensive measures.[4] To date, the development of any measure for treatment of survivors of a nuclear blast has yielded nothing. The Bioshield and BARDA programs were intended to incentivize the private sector to development of treatments, but implementation has been a dismal failure for nuclear detonations. Politics trumped serious private sector effort by talking private sector inventive away.

The program for nuclear weapons mitigation has been in essence, converted into a long term government research program. There is no urgency in the federal effort. Nor is there any meaningful oversight from congress. Conversion from an incentivized private sector focused program to a federal research program happened with the full knowledge and acquiescence of congress. It is unclear if congress understood that it was being gamed by very smart, highly respected federal bureaucrats when the effort was federalized. Congress simply did not understand the implications of what it did.

What happens to survivors of a nuclear blast is simple: They crawl out of the high-radiation portion of the blast zone on their own. That assumes they can get out on their own. If not, they die where they fall or where they can move to on their own. Official policy is to prevent first responders from going in to rescue survivors unless they are in a low radiation area.[5]

In short, what will happen to survivors of a nuclear blast in a U.S. city is that thousands or, more likely, tens of thousands will die slowly and miserably of radiation sickness and/or thirst. Treatment for biological injury from severe radiation exposure, often coupled with trauma, requires intensive care (intravenous lines, antibiotics, platelet and/or blood transfusions) and such medical facilities in any region of the U.S. can treat a few hundred survivors at the very most. Platelet supplies will last for only a day or two, so intensive care will be impaired or limited to whatever the remaining functioning medical system can deliver. The situation represents yet another failure of the two-party system.[6]

The irony is that all along, the chance of a nuclear blast from terrorists has appeared to be very low. An accidental launch by the Russians or Chinese appeared to be more likely, but still very low. Now, with the revelations from Schlosser’s book, the main threat appears to be from the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. itself, followed by an accidental attack by Russia or maybe China. Given the revelations from Schlosser, it is reasonable to believe that the chance of a nuclear blast in a U.S. city is 100-fold to 1,000-fold more likely to come from our own nuclear arsenal than from any murdering terrorist or an accident by a nuclear power such as Russia. If the public had known all along the risk that Schlosser describes, there is no reason to believe that Bioshield, BARDA or earlier efforts, e.g., the Armed Forces Radiobiological Research Institute[7], would not have been unfocused and inept. In that scenario at least one or more drugs with a meaningful impact on saving lives after a nuclear blast would very likely be available today.

This situation is a direct consequence of what didn’t happen because the U.S. government did not trust its people to be able to handle truth. The public could have been made aware of the risks without sacrificing any national security secrets. Instead, our government chose to hide its mistakes and embarrassments from us. If you accept that description of reality as basically accurate, then it is easy to see that this is just another example of why many people lose trust in their elected leaders and the government.

It is time for regime change in Washington. Both parties and their affiliated politicians hide embarrassing but non-sensitive and important truth from the U.S. public. Who does that best serve? The public interest or themselves?


1. Links: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=230075256; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tavis-smiley/eric-schlosser_b_4081050.html; http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2013/09/30/130930crbo_books_menand?currentPage=all.

2. Links: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/the-lennon-files-the-fbi-and-the-beatle-429429.html; https://www.aclu.org/national-security/after-25-years-fbi-finally-releases-last-10-documents-john-lennon-fbi-file.

3. Link: http://reformparty.org/reform-party-of-california-essays-two-party-politics-and-recent-history/.

4. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Bioshield_Act; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biomedical_Advanced_Research_and_Development_Authority.

5. Link: http://hps.org/homeland/documents/Planning_Guidance_for_Response_to_a_Nuclear_Detonation-2nd_Edition_FINAL.pdf.

6. Rest assured, the government will claim great progress and success, e.g., they deploy useless, overpriced iodine tablets and let people think that has any relevance to a nuclear attack. The federal posture here is simply impossible to square with the reality of a nuclear blast in a populated area. What the government is working on is (i) stockpiling medicines (e.g., filgrastim) that need to be used in intensive care facilities (which are not available to more than a few dozen people) and (ii) drugs that work only if they are administered before a nuclear blast. How any of that has any relevance is unclear. There is no logical way to reconcile the hideous reality of a nuclear blast with the government’s current program. The whole Bioshield/BARDA approach for nuclear blast mitigation since its conversion to a federal research program has been smoke, mirrors, and a waste of tax dollars.

7. Link: http://www.afrri.usuhs.mil/. The problem with the federal effort here is fairly straightforward: Tax dollars are endless, competent congressional oversight is limited or non-existent and accountability is nil. In that milieu, why would there have to be a sense of urgency or focus on the end result? That isn’t where the incentives lie.