Amid such disappointments, there were moments of hope. I received the same airplane accident report from two government sources, each with different sections blacked out. This allowed me to piece together a fuller account of the crash. At the Washington Navy Yard, I found a box of files and photos about the recovery of the fourth weapon, which various people had claimed were either classified or didn’t exist. But despite such finds, by 2007 I was beginning to panic. I still didn’t know the levels of plutonium contamination in Spain, the current state of the cleanup, or even the history of the cleanup. I couldn’t find the scientist in charge. I couldn’t find any budget numbers. My attempts at research through normal channels were being blocked or ignored, and I was starting to wonder if I would ever be able to piece together an accurate picture of the botched cleanup and the state of Palomares today. The DOE, and its Spanish counterpart, CIEMAT, were uncooperative. Sections of the DOE Web site relating to Palomares would suddenly disappear after I requested information on them. (Luckily I kept printouts of the Web pages so I could cite the “disappeared” information in my endnotes.) The DOE’s Spain Program Manager, Mohandas Bhat, didn’t respond to my calls, e-mails, or requests for an interview. Well, that’s not exactly true. He replied to one e-mail in late 2006:
Thank you for your interest in the Palomares Program. Please note that the entire Palomares program is conducted by CIEMAT with their scientists working on the projects. Over the years, DOE has been contributing a small portion of the annual costs of the Palomares program. If you wish to obtain further information about the program, please contact CIEMAT directly.
Which I did, of course. And, getting no response, I flew to Madrid, took the Metro to City University station, and trudged nearly a mile to the offices of CIEMAT. In America, whenever a government official stonewalls me, I have a stock response: I go to his or her office and sit outside until someone talks to me. This almost always works. After a couple of hours, the secretary gets agitated and tells someone to get me out of her hair. Sometimes it is a lackey; sometimes it is the actual official. I expected the technique to work in Spain, but I was so wrong. When it comes to ignoring people, Spanish bureaucrats are masters of their art. I sat at CIEMAT for two full days with the secretary offering only the merest acknowledgement of my presence. When I left Madrid for the Spanish desert, I remained empty-handed.
José Herrera Plaza, a Spanish writer and filmmaker who had been documenting Palomares for years, was my last hope. He pulled up to the gas station where Anouschka and I waited, and unfolded himself from his car. He hadn’t been lying about Hugh Laurie. Herrera was tall and lanky, with a bobbing, oversize head and bulging eyes. “I think he has a thyroid condition,” whispered Anouschka. We climbed into our car and followed him up the mountain.
At José’s house we ate and drank and watched a rough cut of his Palomares documentary. We talked about the town. As José talked, he paced back and forth quickly, his long arms gesticulating. He explained how he had become obsessed with Palomares. He believed that the government wanted the townspeople exposed to plutonium so that scientists could study the long-term effects of plutonium ingestion. He repeatedly called the retired Spanish scientist who had overseen the government’s health-monitoring program—the one man who had spoken to me in Madrid—“Dr. Mengele.”
Herrera’s interpretation of events seemed extreme, but after my failure at CIEMAT, I had no additional information and few Spanish contacts. The next day, after a tour of Palomares—an incongruous town somewhere between a peasant village and a middle-class British holiday resort—we returned to José’s house. By this point, he trusted me enough to download several hundred DOE documents onto my laptop. He had gotten these files from the DOE Web site, and I was embarrassed that I hadn’t been able to find them myself. But when I returned to the U.S. and typed in the links José had shown me, they were all dead. It’s unclear whether José had retrieved the documents years ago, before the post-9/11 reclassification effort, or whether the DOE had blocked parts of its Web site within the U.S. only. Regardless, despite many attempts over the next two years, I was never able to access these links from my computer.