Press Briefing by Mark Gearan
The Briefing Room
5:50 P.M. EST
MR. GEARAN: We've just concluded what I think was a very good and productive meeting. It was convened here in the White House with various departments and agencies of the government, as well as senior staff and senior White House staff here. Assistant Secretaries and senior staff of several of the departments came here at the invitation of the White House to discuss this issue of radiation that's been raised in recent weeks. We met for more than an hour over in the Old Executive Office Building.
There are several things that came out of the meeting in terms of where we go from here. I would have to tell you, this is the first step, this is the first meeting in terms of an interagency group that we have had. I suspect there will be many more. Already we have -- I'll go through -- there have been different committees and subgroups suggested and recommended. A meeting of this particular group is planned for next week as well. So there's a great deal yet to be done, but I think, on balance, this was a very good start to a very complex and important issue.
Fundamentally, the White House has established an interagency working group that will deal with this. The officials that will be comprised of this -- the principals, that is, are the following members of the Cabinet: Secretary of Energy O'Leary; Secretary Shalala; Secretary Aspin; Attorney General Reno; Secretary Jesse Brown; OMB Director Panetta; and the NASA Administrator Dan Goldin in addition to the senior White House staff that will be participating in it.
The meeting was called, obviously, after reports and the activity and the actions of our Secretary of Energy O'Leary to follow up ultimately to a report first issued in 1986 by Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who posed three questions to the Department of Energy at that time in terms of some of the research and the work that they did in his subcommittee work: Number one, what was the extent of experimentation; number two, what was the medical follow-up to this experimentation; and third, what compensation might be appropriate.
The written responses that he received from the officials at that time seemed to be, to us, inadequate. Two administrations have failed to answer these questions. And we intend to step up to the plate and to do our very best to get to the bottom of the facts at hand and to get as much information as we possibly can about these issues.
Let me go through a bit about some of the other subgroups that were established to give you a sense of the scope of the administration activity. Number one, a group was put together by our Cabinet secretary, Christine Varney, on the outreach that's going on in the agencies. Various departments reported at the meeting about what the status is of their information retrieval and their ongoing activities. The 800 numbers that Secretary O'Leary had spoken of are replicated in some of the other agencies. We want to coordinate that so that there would be consistent information retrieved, frequently from callers into the lines, and that information would indeed be shared across agencies.
Secondly, one of the principal activities of this interagency group is to coordinate the retrieval of information which is on all of the government-sponsored radiation on humans that were conducted since the '40s. This will be done on an agency-by-agency basis. Each agency will look at, and have already begun to start that process in many instances, of retrieving the kind of information so that all that can be retrieved into, so we can then assess where we go from there.
Thirdly, in addition to those retrieval efforts, there will be an important congressional piece to this. As I mentioned, Congressman Markey has really been in the forefront of this, and others as well. We want to work with the Congress as we begin to keep them informed and apprised and to seek their counsel on our activities. And finally then, the various legal counsels in all of the departments will be coordinated in a legal committee.
So that is a quick readout. As I said, each agency gave a report of where they stand, where they're going from here. I would have to tell you right at the outset this is the first -- it's preliminary. A lot of the questions you might have may go unanswered at this point. There are some questions that are premature in terms of what information we have, what we don't have.
I think, though, in summation, what you have is, the President, who urged certainly in the campaign and through an executive order, opened this in government to get information out, to have the kind of government that is open and responsive to the people that sent us here. Secretary O'Leary has followed up with tremendous distinction and with the full support of the President, as he remarked upon when he was in South Carolina. We have other members of the Cabinet now that are earnestly trying to retrieve the same kind of information within their jurisdictions.
Q: Can you determine through any of the material that you've received why these people were not informed, why it was conducted in such a heinous way -- that the experimentation on the children, allegedly, and pregnant women, and who else -- was thee any reason given for the total secrecy?
MR. GEARAN: No, there's not a real reason that I can give to you. There are some instances where some consent was apparently given -- asked for and given. How specific that was and how detailed that was is an open question at this point. That's the kind of thing that this whole retrieval initiative that we're starting will seek to determine.
Q: How long is it going to take you to try to gather all this? And when will you have an idea of how much this administration would be willing to spend on compensation?
MR. GEARAN: Well, as the Secretary has said previously -- and the President certainly has supported that -- if it is determined that the American people were wronged, we would have to consider what appropriate compensation and assistance would be. We would work with the Congress on that and consult with them on what that would be.
The time line, I wish I could give you a very speedy time line. We are working with all deliberate speed on this since this first came to the fore, and we have convened this meeting the first day back here. Now we're trying to decentralize the kind of information so it's done very quickly and rapidly. I think by next week's time we might have preliminary reports along the way, now that, for instance, the Department of Defense or HHS and the Attorney General -- all the kind of Cabinet members are going back to their departments to seek the kind of information they need.
Q: Will the CIA be a part of this? And if so, why wasn't CIA here today?
MR. GEARAN: Well, the National Security Council was at the meeting today, and they will be working with the CIA, should that be appropriate.
Q: Will the CIA be involved in full disclosure if it's determined, as it was in the '75 study, that they indeed were sponsors of human radiation experiments?
MR. GEARAN: I think we have to determine what kind of involvement that is. That's why we had the National Security Council there. And the next step in terms of the CIA -- we'd have to see how that proceeds.
Q: Congressman Markey, on that point, has said he has been assured by the White House in meetings with Phil Lader and Christine Varney that the CIA's cooperation will be sought on this.
MR. GEARAN: I don't mean to be vague. I think my point is in terms of today's meeting and today's participation. And I was at the meeting as well with the Congressman -- that the National Security Council -- it's deemed appropriate that Christine has been in touch with to ensure their participation at today's meeting. They will now be -- a lot of what's going on obviously is we have to now go back to the various departments and agencies. They're putting together the kind of protocol that would be required to seek and retrieve the information we need in order to make some best judgments.
Q: So we shouldn't interpret from what's happened that the CIA gets a pass on some of this because it's a black agency?
MR. GEARAN: No, I think you should interpret that the presence of the National Security Council will ensure that this government is committed to the kind of openness that I think you've seen in the past few weeks.
Q: Does the presence of the Attorney General in this indicate that you're looking at a possible criminal liability?
MR. GEARAN: Well, I think there's a whole range of legal issues that are involved, obviously, and the Attorney General will be a key player. She's a principal on the committee, as I mentioned. They are looking at the whole range of legal issues that are involved. I think it's premature at this point to determine where we go from here.
Q: Are you willing to pursue that if there's --
MR. GEARAN: At this point, I think we're -- what's most accurate now for me to relate to you certainly is we're at the stage now where it would be premature to say what kind of actions, what the end game necessarily is. What I think I can report to you on is the kind of openness that you've seen, that we're committed to getting to the bottom of it, to getting the kind of information, and then to make the best and most reasonable, informed judgment on where we proceed from there.
Q: I realize the nature focus is on Americans, but if there is any evidence that foreigners were victimized in this way, can they get compensation such as in the Agent Orange situation?
MR. GEARAN: I think, again, that would be a topic of the interagency working group.
Q: Is there any evidence at this point that perhaps any prisoners of war or something --
MR. GEARAN: I don't know the answer to that. Not that I'm aware of.
Q: What was inadequate about previous response, the previous administrations? I mean, where did they fall short? You said it was inadequate.
MR. GEARAN: Nothing was followed up on.
Q: Nothing at all? Nothing was done?
MR. GEARAN: Not that any of us are aware of.
Q: Was Secretary O'Leary acting on her own when she suggested the compensation? Is there any concern about this turning into a multibillion-dollar --
MR. GEARAN: No. I think, if anything, I would like to make it quite clear that the Secretary has been in very close contact with the White House. A lot of her efforts on documents within the department have grown out of this, and officials are here from DOE -- Mike Gaulden and Tara O'Toole are here from the department to visit with you.
But the history of this in terms of the White House is a good example of the kind of coordination between the department and the White House. The President reiterated that in South Carolina. The Secretary's comments in terms of compensation -- I think she spoke of personally -- we can get you the exact quote of how she phrased it, but what we have said continually, what other White House officials have said is that, similar to what the Secretary said; indeed, if Americans have been -- if we realize and figure out that they were wronged, that we would have to consider the kind of compensation and assistance that would be appropriate.
Q: Is there any doubt at this point that some Americans were wronged?
MR. GEARAN: I think, given where we are right now in terms of putting together this group -- departments are going back, they're writing letters to contractors, they're doing the kinds of things to retrieve the information that you would have -- it would be premature for me to make that kind of judgment.
Q: But haven't some of the studies suggested, or more than suggested, stated flat out -- Markey's report of a couple of years ago said flat out they were wronged?
MR. GEARAN: Congressman Markey's study is an important one, one we take very seriously. But in terms of exact kind of judgment calls, I think we find the information to date is very troubling and the Secretary has been quite clear on this.
Q: Did she get the President's permission --
Q: get a handle of whether there are hundreds or thousands of victims that you're talking about right now?
MR. GEARAN: We don't have any best judgment on that. I think the Congressman's report had 695. But I --
Q: He said possibly thousands.
MR. GEARAN: Yes. As I said, in 1986, the Markey report, which only did the Department of Energy, as I understand it, had 695 suggested individuals. If you broaden this beyond that -- we're not able to give you that.
Q: How do you view the scope of this group? Is it going to go out and take testimony from victims? Is it going to have any public hearings? Where do you see it actually going?
MR. GEARAN: Well, the first step is the retrieval of this information and where we -- to get the kind of scope of what's involved. And I don't know -- feel free to jump in on how they're going to do that. Each agency has some initial thoughts of this. What we want to do is ensure that this retrieval is a coordinated activity so that the kinds of questions that are asked, so that the information that is sought by various individuals is consistent and that we get it back in a way that's most responsive.
You have to observe that each department and each agency has certain nuances that are different in terms of contractors, in terms of research, in terms of -- the Veterans Administration, for instance, has 172 hospitals. How they retrieve that information is vastly different from the Department of Defense.
Q: You don't view a public role for this interagency group at some point?
MR. GEARAN: That was not covered at this meeting. I would thing it would be something that the principals at the meeting would want to consider.
Q: Because it's such a high level group, will any of these meetings be open?
MR. GEARAN: We did not review that at the meeting. I think what we want to report to you today is that we're hard at work at this and earnestly trying to get about the business of getting to the bottom of it.
Q: Is there any consideration being given to other forms of human experimentation other than radiological? For example, biological warfare defense, chemical warfare, medical research --
MR. GEARAN: I think the Department of Defense, that will be one of the things they will have to -- the charge is --
Q: Was this discussed today, that you might expand beyond radiological experimentation into other forms of human experimentation?
MR. GEARAN: What was discussed today was that each department is going to pursue and report back on Monday, I think is your next session of this interagency group. The principals will have a meeting in three weeks or so time where there will be reports on the kind of information that they're going to seek back from. That was not covered in this meeting today.
Q: I'm just not clear whether you're saying, yes, you would examine, for example, biological weapons research that was done on --
MR. GEARAN: Each agency is going to be charged with their -- it's going to be done agency by agency. I think when we have another session by next week's time, we'll have some better judgment on how Defense is doing versus other agencies. I don't have that answer for you.
Q: Was the White House notified by Secretary O'Leary before she came out with her remarks?
MR. GEARAN: Oh, yes. We have been --
Q: Before the compensation idea was floated?
MR. GEARAN: I'm sorry. We have been in close contact. In fact, I think the December -- Mike, correct me if I'm wrong on this -- department announcement that the Secretary did on openness on December 7th -- I think you'll find in the release a quote of the President in that commending the Secretary on her leadership on this. She has mentioned this from time to time. And Michael, you may want to give the specifics on this. I think how it popped in terms of newsworthiness was not then until the Albuquerque paper last Tuesday.
But the broader point -- I mean, there's kind of a media sequence of some interest to journalism PhDs somewhere that in terms of our perspective, yes, we feel very much that the White House and department interchange on this has been appropriate and we feel fully informed.
Q: So O'Leary was not speaking out of turn when she talked about compensation, is that correct?
MR. GEARAN: I think the President reiterated his support. We have -- other senior officials in the White House have talked about compensation if Americans have been deemed to be wronged by this. And the President has commended the Secretary.
Q: Did anybody come to this meeting with numbers of people who have been experimented on?
MR. GEARAN: No.
Q: It's been a week, 10 days, two weeks since Secretary Aspin was tasked to get involved with this. Did the Pentagon come to the table with anything today at all?
MR. GEARAN: Yes. They reported -- Deputy Deutsch is charged with the leadership on this within the department. Rudy Deleon, the Chief of Staff to the Secretary, gave a report of what they're doing. I agree -- two weeks. There has been a period of the holidays that have absented some key players from participation on this. I think on the first day back people have been brought in here. We will do so again next Monday for further detail on this. But it was sharing information about where people are at, what the charges are, forming the kind of infrastructure we need on an interagency -- indeed, throughout the government basis. That's what went on today.
Q: Was there any discussion of what the financial liability to the government might be on this?
MR. GEARAN: No.
Q: Mark, on medical follow-up. Apparently, according to the Markey report, there was no medical follow-up from the Department of Energy. Doesn't that make it difficult to determine harm to the people who participated, or will you have to do those studies now?
MR. GEARAN: I don't know the exact -- Tara, do you want to --
MS. O'TOOLE: Yes. Actually, some of the Department of Energy's subjects did receive some medical follow-up, although it was fairly unorganized and haphazard. And I think one of the questions that needs to be determined, and that the Markey asked be posed and answered, is should further medical follow-up be conducted and, if so, what form would that take?
Q: What's your view of that?
MS. O'TOOLE: I think you have to look at that experiment by experiment. I would also add that the whole process of calling in the records from radiation experiments subsequent to World War II is quite an ambitious and enormous undertaking, and it's proving to be difficult. I mean, it's going to take us some time to get these records together, even to get them to a point where they can be reviewed.
Q: Are you talking about a matter of months or a matter of years?
MS. O'TOOLE: Months.
Q: Mark, what was the President's involvement on this issue today?
MR. GEARAN: He was briefed, of course, that this meeting was happening.
Q: Did he drop in?
MR. GEARAN: He was not able to drop in. He was participating in his briefings on NATO. Phil Lader, the Deputy Chief of Staff, conducted the meeting. He was briefed on it this morning at his regular meeting by Phil that this was happening, and I suspect there will be a follow-up with him afterwards.
Q: Does there have to be physical harm to get compensation?
MR. GEARAN: I think it is premature at this point. We are now at the stage of trying to get the kind of information that we need in order to make those kind of informed judgments.
Q: Mark, you said no decision has been made whether to seek any criminal charges against anybody in this. Would it have been illegal to have subjected someone to a radiation test without proper notification?
MR. GEARAN: I'm embarrassed, as a lawyer, I can't answer that. I'm not the appropriate person to make that kind of judgment. I think those are the kind of issues that we need to make a reasonable judgment on and some decisions.
Q: Last week, Hazel O'Leary said that in the summer of '92 the Bush administration definitely knew about this stuff, and they could have declassified the documents then and they chose not to. Doesn't this administration find that rather upsetting, to put it mildly?
MR. GEARAN: Well, I think what I said earlier is that --
Q: Wind up the pitch. (Laughter.)
MR. GEARAN: Thank you very much -- is I think two administrations have failed to answer some very troubling questions that were originally outlined in Congressman Markey's report. What we are committed to is to getting to the bottom of the information and stepping up to the plate. I think it's reflective of the kind of openness that the President has suggested from the campaign and into his administration.
Q: Could you just clarify one thing? Congressman Markey seemed to be a little stronger in saying that you were fully committed to supporting the legislative package with compensation for people who it was determined were harmed. All you said was that you would be willing to consider it, that you would support considering it.
MR. GEARAN: Well, I think what I would like to say is, to echo what Secretary O'Leary has already said, and that is -- and others that have spoken to this -- and that is, it's pretty simple; If we determine through this process that we're embarking upon that American people were wronged as a result of this government-sponsored experimentation, that we would have to consider the kind of assistance and compensation that would be appropriate. A key part of this is obviously the Congress. That's indeed what the Secretary said. And I don't think that's separate from what Congressman Markey is suggesting -- that we'd want to work very closely with the Congress on how that's best done.
Q: Did you get any specifics out of the VA? They had 14 hospitals licensed to conduct nuclear medicine research. Are you certain that all 14 in fact conducted that research?
MR. GEARAN: I think they did not report on that, specifically. They're starting that and, again, conducting -- that's an example of the kind of decentralized information that they need to really -- as reported at our meeting, they will take the time to do that kind of survey.
Q: Do we know for sure how many agencies or departments were actually conducting these kinds of experiments? Are we even certain about that?
MR. GEARAN: No.
Q: What are we certain of?
MR. GEARAN: What we are certain of is that the administration is committed to ensuring that all or any department that would have some nexus or responsibility here --
Q: No, I mean, we're certain that the DOE did. We're, I think, pretty clear that DOD did. What else are we pretty clear on?
MR. GEARAN: Well, that's what we're determining. I mean, I told you who was there today, the departments. We tried to make sure that people were there at the table. It varied considerably in terms of the kind of information that -- obviously, DOE is out front on this in terms of the information they already have. Others are just beginning that process, as a result of DOE's start on this, like DOD and Veterans Affairs.
So I think by next week -- I hate to keep deferring you here, but a lot of that information is still forthcoming as they then begin the kind of contact with researchers or contractors. I mean, it's a labyrinth of information.
Q: Why is NASA involved? Is there some suggestion known of NASA's involvement?
MS. O'TOOLE: NASA was interested in the effects of radiation as they pertain to space exploration.
Q: And do we know of human experimentation that they did in that regard?
MS. O'TOOLE: We know that NASA sponsored radiation research. We do not know that NASA's experiments were improper or wrong. And I think that's the case with many of the other federal agencies. A number of federal agencies have sponsored research into radiation. It is not clear that those investigations were improper or ethically questionable, and that's what we're trying to determine.
Q: Were the NASA investigations mentioned in the Markey report, or is this new information?
MS. O'TOOLE: I don't know the answer to that.
Q: Is there somebody who can elaborate on it?
MR. GEARAN: Well, the administrator, Dan Goldin -- there's a statement that he'll be issuing from his office which, as Tara mentioned, suggests that the department informed him that during the '60s and '70s, NASA was involved in sponsorship or cosponsorship of some human experiments to determine the effects of radiation. "I personally consider this issue to be of paramount concern and will ensure that any involvement by NASA is fully disclosed to the American public." Then he outlines three steps that -- two steps that he has taken in terms of how it's going to be -- who is responsible for overseeing the internal activities, the team that's being led for a detailed search of the records at NASA involving human experiments involving radiation. And that's where it lies.
Q: Have any of the subjects gone through the Institutional Review Board process?
MR. GEARAN: I don't know the answer.
MS. O'TOOLE: That process really only got underway in the 1970s, so it wouldn't have been pertinent to these earlier experiments.
Q: Except there was some thought that some of it might have happened in the '70s as well.
MS. O'TOOLE: And it is our expectation that federal agencies were complying with the IRB recommendations after that time.
Q: So one week from today this group meets again, and in three weeks the Cabinet level group will meet?
MR. GEARAN: That's correct.
Q: Are they going to meet on a weekly or regular basis?
MR. GEARAN: I think the intent is -- Christine Varney works pretty hard -- I think the intent is this is a very high level at the White House. It is taken very seriously. And I think there will be no short of energy that is going to be committed to this. I would suspect it would be a near-weekly prospect for this working group, and then the principals --
Q: Who will be chairing the working group?
Q: I want to confirm something. Hazel O'Leary mentioned before she talked about compensation that she was going to do so?
MR. GEARAN: Michael, the time line on this? The Secretary's comments on compensation -- the time line. Do you want to just go through the time line?
This is Michael Gaulden.
MR. GAULDEN: She was first asked about that on December 7th. When she talked about it, she talked about it to other reporters between the 7th and last Tuesday. Last Tuesday on a CNN program she was asked again about it and she basically said what she had said before, which is that if we determine that people have been wronged, then we need to consider what would be appropriate compensation.
I'm am not sure exactly why that at that point it had attracted the press's attention where previously it had not.
Q: Well, did she tell the President she was going to talk about compensation before she talked about it? I think that was the question.
MR. GAULDEN: All of these issues have been discussed for as much as two months before the December press conference. I can't tell you if they face to face spoken about that. But all these issues have been discussed between the Department of Energy and the White House for at least two months prior to December 7th.
Q: The question is at what time did the White House become aware of it?
MR. GEARAN: I think the net effect is that the White House position is as I stated before on compensation. In terms of the department's role with the White House, we feel that that has been a very good and mutually rewarding briefing situation. I don't think there's a lapse there. And I don't see any reason to --
Q: Is there any evidence the government's compensated anybody thus far for any of this stuff?
MR. GEARAN: I'm sorry?
MS. O'TOOLE: There have been previous compensation.
MR. GEARAN: For other kinds of things.
Q: But not for his radiation?
Q: Not for human experimentation?
MR. GAULDEN: Well, you recall the tests in the South Pacific in which some of the -- and we talked -- natives received some fallout. And there was an assistance and compensation that followed that at that time. That's an analogy. It's not an exact analogy, but there is precedent.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 6:16 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Press Briefing by Mark Gearan Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269373