The Killing of Karen Silkwood: A Whistleblower's Brave Battle Against Corporate-Bureaucratic-Political Nexus In US
Rashke's sensitive narration of Silkwood's death, the accusations levelled against her after it, and her vindication in court, makes the book a powerful and enriching read.
The Killing of Karen Silkwood: The Story Behind the Kerr-McGee Plutonium Case. Richard Rashke. 1982. Penguin Books. Pages 448. Rs 3,770.
A truck driver headed down Highway 74 near Oklahoma City at 7:30pm on a crisp, cold November evening in 1974 caught a glimmer in the ditch 7.3 miles from Crescent, Oklahoma.
He pulled over to the shoulder, his headlights illuminating a white Honda Civic trapped in a concrete culvert.
The front of the car had been crushed by the impact, and an arm hung from a window. The young woman inside was dead. There was plutonium in her lungs and bones.
As the police investigated the crash, Karen Silkwood's employer quietly provided information that lead to the conclusion she fell asleep at the wheel because of the sedatives she consumed. But her friends and family weren’t convinced.
Karen Silkwood was a whistleblower. Weeks before her death, she had met the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), providing them with 39 documented cases of contamination that had occurred at the Kerr-McGee owned plutonium processing plant in Cimarron City, Oklahoma.
After narrating the immediate aftermath of the crash starkly, Richard Rashke's book goes back a few years.
In a factual but compassionate tone, it introduces Karen Silkwood the person, noting her failed marriage, her giving up of all three children to her ex-husband, and her entry into Kerr-McGee Nuclear Corporation as a laboratory analyst.
Then it explores the lax safety practices at the Cimarron plant, something that makes Silkwood very concerned for her own health and that of her colleagues.
She raises it with the Oil & Chemical Workers Union (OCAW) and then provides the AEC with details of 39 incidents of plutonium contamination that occurred in the recent past at Cimarron.
She also noticed that Kerr-McGee was fabricating quality control data. The union leadership asked her to gather more details. In the process, she stumbled upon Material Unaccounted For (MUF): 40 pounds of plutonium that had gone missing from the plant.
She also discovered that she had been contaminated with extremely high concentrations of plutonium.
Minutes before she was supposed to take all this data to a New York Times reporter waiting for her in Oklahoma City, her car crashed into the culvert, killing her; the documents her colleagues and friends saw her with that evening went missing.
Congressional Investigation And Lawsuit
From that point on, the book dives into the bureaucratic corridors of Oklahoma. Kerr-McGee's enormous influence in the area is made amply clear, and explains the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's reluctance to investigate the death properly, even after they were confronted with inconvenient facts by a private investigator.
The union stood by Silkwood, rubbishing whispered allegations she contaminated herself with plutonium, and lobbied hard in Washington, leading to a congressional investigation — the subject of the second section of the book.
Rashke skilfully draws out the stonewalling tactics deployed by the FBI and Justice Department to keep from revealing their files about Silkwood.
But the congressional subcommittee led by John Dingell had tenacious investigators of their own who deployed every tactic available to them to tease information out of the FBI, one file at a time.
The sudden appearance of a journalist — Jacque Srouji — who claimed to have seen FBI files about Silkwood complicated matters, with the subcommittee learning that the FBI had thousands of pages on Karen Silkwood, including transcripts that suggested she was under surveillance in the weeks leading to her death.
When testifying before the subcommittee, however, Srouji dithered, contradicting her statements to the investigators, and seeking to absolve the FBI of all guilt.
She even devoted considerable effort to discredit Silkwood, bringing up her drug use and sexual orientation to derail the congressional investigation and validate the Oklahoma Highway Patrol’s conclusion in the case.
In the end, after a considerable amount of skulduggery — including ham-handed attempts to slander Srouji’s former boss, the congressional investigator, and the chairman of the subcommittee itself — the FBI gets their way and the congressional investigation dies a quiet death.
The subcommittee investigation's discoveries provided a helpful platform for a lawyer named Daniel Sheehan — aided by a private investigator named Bill Taylor — who sued Kerr-McGee and the FBI on behalf of Silkwood's estate.
And this is where the story of Karen Silkwood, and the third section of the book, veers from a whistleblower investigation into full-blown international espionage.
Srouji had a history of moonlighting for multiple intelligence agencies while she worked as a journalist.
But while Sheehan focused on deposing her to drag information about the FBI's surveillance on Silkwood, Taylor stumbled upon a CIA operation with links to multiple foreign intelligence agencies like the Iranian SAVAK, and a host of domestic law enforcement organisations like state and municipal police forces.
It was a discovery that placed him in mortal peril, with two Farsi-speaking individuals ambushing him in his hotel room and attacking him with a knife. While Taylor defended himself and use that same knife to wound one of his attackers, he could not trace the wounded man in any hospital in the area.
Details, Details, Details
The lawsuit and the investigation that takes place during it marks the third section of the book, and possibly the most thrilling. And bits and pieces of information gleaned from Taylor's sources inside the FBI and other intelligence agencies paint a vivid and frightening if incomplete picture of a security state that is a law unto itself.
It is easy to get lost in the whirlwind of names and organisations, even though Rashke does his best to untangle the complex web of bureaucracies and individuals for the reader.
Especially during the latter stages of the trial, the book appears to drag. But this isn't so much Rashke's fault as that of the United States government, with the Justice Department doing its best to exhaust the litigants and avoid having to reveal sensitive national security information in court.
Rashke's treatment of the national security aspect isn't as comprehensive as one would like, but that is understandable given that this is a book about Silkwood's death, and Rashke wrote it almost contemporaneously.
Towards the end of the book, it becomes apparent that Silkwood's efforts at uncovering Quality Control data and Material Unaccounted For brought her in the crosshairs of a plutonium smuggling network.
While Rashke avoids an unequivocal conclusion, and the judge ultimately sides with the Justice Department in declining to compel the FBI to reveal every detail, there is enough circumstantial evidence — besides the private investigator's sources inside the FBI — pointing to the strong possibility that this cost Silkwood her life.
It may seem preposterous that such a plutonium smuggling network should exist in the United States of America.
But supplementary reading shows that the congressional subcommittee ordered the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate those rumours.
And while the GAO was denied access to documents by the FBI and CIA, high-ranking former officials of the CIA confirmed that uranium-235 from another facility in the United States was the most likely source of the enriched uranium held by Israel (this and Silkwood's story is the subject of a three-part series on my Substack).
Rashke's book makes for some unnerving yet fascinating reading, providing the reader with a long and hard look at the corporate-bureaucratic-political nexus governing the energy and utilities industry in the United States.
It also introduces the reader to a nationwide network of intelligence professionals working for state and municipal police.
These professionals used a computer network to maintain and share dossiers on private citizens, and even had access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, a national computer network linking police departments.
Another lesser known fact highlighted by Rashke's book is the existence of well-funded departments in large corporations like Georgia Power, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison.
Well-funded and staffed with former intelligence professionals from the CIA, FBI, and army intelligence, these departments had top-line surveillance equipment that the FBI would borrow occasionally.
And through the nationwide network mentioned earlier, they had access to dossiers on activists, leftists, and anyone considered a threat by those corporations.
All this validates some of the strident criticism heaped on the United States by leftist sources.
This, along with Rashke's sensitive narration of Silkwood's death, the accusations levelled against her after it, and her vindication in court, makes the book a powerful and enriching read.
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