June 6, 1989: In a dramatic, unprecedented raid on a federal nuclear facility, more than 70 U.S. agents burst into the sprawling Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant near Denver seeking evidence of environmental crimes involving radioactive plutonium. Led by FBI special agent Jon Lipsky, the raid was kept secret from Colorado Gov. Roy Romer and the area’s congressman, David Skaggs. Afterward, Romer angrily said, “It jars me to the bone that judgments we have made in Colorado about Rocky Flats may have been made on bad information.”
June 7, 2014: I am among several people backstage at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities — not far from the now dismantled Rocky Flats plant — with Romer, Skaggs and Lipsky. The two former officeholders had just met the former FBI agent for the first time. All were about to participate in a public discussion marking the 25th anniversary of the raid.
The backstage conversation was fascinating and somewhat tense, and it was recorded secretly, most likely by one of the participants. The recording was then given to a journalist.
Skaggs said later that he was surprised to learn that the conversation had been covertly recorded. “It’s ironic,” he said, “that in the context of an event that was designed to introduce retrospectively some transparency into the events of 1989, there was this opaque aspect of a secret taping.”
This odd recording incident suggests how secrecy — in various forms — grips Rocky Flats even now, 25 years after the plant stopped making plutonium bombs used to detonate U.S. thermonuclear weapons.
Former plant workers, who had “Q” clearances for top-secret nuclear work, legitimately can’t talk about weapons details. Members of a federal grand jury from the early 1990s have been prevented by grand jury rules — upheld in court — from revealing testimony or their full 1992 report, though you can find the report on the Web. Some people worry that information still kept secret might affect public health and the environment.
In the meantime, after a $7.5 billion cleanup, most of the roughly 10-square-mile Rocky Flats site has been designated a national wildlife refuge. And though many studies of the effects of Rocky Flats on worker and public health and the environment have been conducted, experts agree that science can’t resolve all of the questions. People in nearby communities continue to wonder aloud whether radiation or toxic chemicals from the plant caused illnesses or deaths among friends or relatives.
The uncertainties about Rocky Flats sometimes get confused with deliberately withheld information. And evidence, uncertainty and risk are weighed differently by different individuals and groups. For example, activists often see danger in the unknowns while land developers usually dismiss any risks.
“Part of what is constantly being played out is the feeling that there are secrets,” says Dorothy Ciarlo, a Boulder psychologist and oral historian who has studied secrecy at the facility. People think that “if we just burrow enough we can find out — whether or not that is in fact the case.”
Some secrets are easier to pin down than others. For instance, the secret recording of the June 7 backstage conversation was quickly given to Patty Calhoun, editor of Denver’s Westword weekly, who saw nothing particularly newsworthy. Among other things, it included tidbits like former Gov. Romer asking former FBI agent Lipsky why he wasn’t told about the 1989 raid, and the latter blaming a superior.
And who made the secret recording two months ago? Ironically, the best guess is Lipsky, who retired from the FBI in 2004 and who has said publicly that agency bosses thwarted his Rocky Flats investigation. But Lipsky, the owner of Mission Accomplished Investigations in Southern California, refused to discuss it. He wrote in an e-mail, “I am not interested in being interviewed about that non-issue.”
The secret recording does appear to be a non-issue legally because Colorado law allows “one-party consent” when it comes to participants recording conversations either in person or on the telephone. But the issue of secrecy continues to be toxic when it comes to discussions of Rocky Flats.
Former Rep. Skaggs, currently an attorney practicing in Denver, said, “The idea that somebody in that room was presumably looking for some kind of ‘gotcha’ event, or at least was on alert for that, seems inconsistent with the spirit of the day.”
Len Ackland is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor at the University of Colorado.