A year had passed. The fall of 1975 came and went on the bleak Oklahoma prairie. Karen Silkwood’s death remained a mystery.
On a warm and gentle day in Texas, the first anniversary of the car crash, her parents were comforted by a small phenomenon. The chrysanthemums they had transplanted from her grave to their backyard suddenly bloomed bright yellow and lavender, as if to remind them that their daughter’s spirit was still alive.
In Washington D.C., an ad hoc group of feminists, unionists and nuclear critics were printing a commemorative poster. They had trouble getting a picture of her because her photographs, along with most of her other belongings, had been soiled with plutonium and buried by a nuclear sanitation team. Finally a friend donated a slightly blurred snapshot. The face was tiny and intense, shadowed by dark hair and lit only by the suggestion of a girlish smile.
Under the picture stark lettering was emblazoned: “Karen Silkwood — Dead Because She Knew Too Much?”
The FBI had closed the case, leaving many questions officially unanswered. Then the top executive of the company that employed Silkwood interfered with a congressional reopening of the case, and the Justice Department joined in hamstringing that inquiry.
In the opinion of a congressional investigator, the official handling of the case amounted to a cover-up.
Karen Silkwood, 28 years old, a laboratory analyst at one of ten plutonium plants in the country, died on a lonely stretch of Highway 74 in the early-evening darkness on November 13th, 1974, when her tiny Honda Civic Hatchback ran off the road and smashed into the wing wall of a concrete culvert.
Until 1972 Silkwood had been an unassuming housewife who had dropped out of college and sacrificed a career in science for seven years of marriage. Then she got a divorce, moved to Oklahoma City, headquarters for Kerr-McGee Corporation’s oil and nuclear complex, and found a job at its plutonium plant 20 miles away.
For a quarter-century Kerr-McGee, with assets approaching $1.5 billion, has been a leader in the nuclear industry. In 1951 the company became the first oil producer to decide that nuclear power could be a profitable supplement to petroleum and Kerr-McGee soon ranked as the country’s largest uranium supplier. In the early Seventies it helped pioneer the move to plutonium, a rare substance that is more dangerous and valuable than uranium. The late Robert Kerr, the company founder, was governor of Oklahoma, ran for president as a Democrat in 1952 and, at the time of his death in 1963, was one of the most powerful men in the Senate. Dean McGee, his protégé and successor as head of the corporation, advised President Kennedy on defense policies and President Ford on energy.
Silkwood believed in nuclear power and planned a future at Kerr-McGee when she first arrived in 1972. But as she learned about plutonium’s hazards she slowly turned into a critic of management. Her coworkers respected her candor, and in 1974 they elected her to the local steering committee of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW).
On September 26th, 1974, a few months after her election, Silkwood was invited to the OCAW’s Washington offices where she told the union’s legislative officials that Kerr-McGee’s plant was sloppy, dishonest and unsafe. Steve Wodka, a young OCAW occupational health expert, helped persuade Silkwood to work undercover and gather company files which would corroborate her allegations. News of her spying soon leaked out, however. During the first week of November she was contaminated with plutonium on three consecutive days in what she felt was an attempt by Kerr-McGee to intimidate her.
But she refused to quit, and on November 13th she collected the results of her snooping in a manila folder and headed for a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City to meet Wodka, her boyfriend Drew Stephens and New York Times reporter David Burnham.
The highway patrolman who helped recover Silkwood’s body from a Highway 74 culvert a short distance from the plant says he noticed several documents scattered in the mud and tossed them in the back of her wrecked Honda. But by the time Wodka, Stephens and Burnham retrieved the car from a garage the next day, the manila folder and documents were gone.
Because an autopsy showed traces of alcohol and a sedative in her bloodstream, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol ruled that Silkwood had fallen asleep and drifted off the road to her death. When the OCAW learned of the missing folder, however, it hired auto accident specialist A.O. Pipkin, a former Albuquerque, New Mexico, policeman, to check for foul play. On November 19th Pipkin announced he had discovered substantial evidence — a fresh dent in the Honda’s rear bumper, inconsistencies with the highway’s contour and skid marks at the scene — that indicated a hit-and-run assailant had forced Silkwood off the road.
That same day Kerr-McGee security chief James Reading began compiling a dossier on Pipkin. Reading phoned a cooperative captain in the New Mexico state police intelligence division and hired Pinkerton Security to investigate him. The only innuendo they dredged up, however, was an unsubstantiated report that Pipkin had “IRS problems” in 1955.
Reading later claimed Kerr-McGee needed the dossier for a lawsuit the company expected to be filed on behalf of Silkwood. Kerr-McGee did not want Silkwood’s death turned into an anticompany rallying point.
But that did not explain why the company should worry about a lawsuit, assuming it had no complicity in Silkwood’s death.
A year and a half later Jacque Srouji, a sometime journalist from Nashville, supplied an answer. The key to the mystery, she said, was in the missing manila folder.
Silkwood must have unwittingly collected documents that would have uncovered a nuclear smuggling ring at the plant, Srouji said. The smugglers must have poisoned Silkwood with plutonium to scare her and to keep her quarantined — away from the Kerr-McGee files — and when Silkwood bravely returned to the plant they ran her off the road and pilfered her folder.
“Karen Silkwood must have had figures in her possession which not only pinpointed the exact amount of nuclear material missing but the persons involved as well,” Srouji said. “She didn’t know the time bomb she was carrying.”
Srouji did know a lot about the case. Her good friend Larry Olson was the FBI agent who investigated Silkwood’s death.
Larry Olson, 44 years old, a tall, fair-haired 15-year FBI veteran with no sign of a paunch, gave scant notice to Silk-wood’s accident when he first read about it in the local papers. But after the New York Times called national attention to Pipkin’s hit-and-run theory, the Bureau as signed the case to him. He was picked, he says, because he is an Oklahoma native and one of his regular duties was to serve as the FBI’s liaison to Kerr-McGee.
As he later told congressional investigators, Olson’s first stop was Kerr-McGee’s 30-story granite headquarters in downtown Oklahoma City where he chatted with security chief Reading and W.C. “Spot” Gentry, a retired FBI agent who had hired on at Kerr-McGee as a security consultant.
It is generally known among Olson’s associates that he has a fascination for the titillating qualities of criminology — in the mid-Sixties when Olson was stationed in Nashville he once offered to entertain U.S. attorney Gil Merritt with FBI tapes of Martin Luther King’s bedroom conversations — and Reading and Gentry were soon plying Olson with notes on Silkwood’s sex and drug habits. Olson copied down everything, he says, because he felt it might prove germane.
Reading’s mind was already made up: Silkwood’s allegations about the company should be disqualified because she was bisexual (“‘Lesbies’ don’t care, they’ll do anything”) and because “narcotics paraphernalia” had been found in her apartment.
Olson treated the case with his usual tenacity. He interviewed Silkwood’s friends and satisfied himself that she had experimented with, in his FBI jargon, “switch-hitting.” But he could not connect bisexuality to her death, and the “narcotics paraphernalia” turned out to be a syringe and beaker from the plant which she had been using for cooking.
So Olson turned to the trace of alcohol that had been found in her bloodstream. For a while he was obsessed with finding the source of the alcohol. He checked with the cafe where she had eaten supper and chased leads as far afield as Idaho. But the alcohol, regardless of where it came from, was not enough to contribute to her falling asleep at the wheel. Of more significance were the .35 milligrams of methaqualone the autopsy revealed.
Silkwood’s nerves had begun to erode as she sneaked Kerr-McGee documents into the manila folder in the month before she died, and a doctor had prescribed the chalky white Quaaludes to help her sleep at night. But, her friends say, she also was taking them during the day.
The question was whether .35 milligrams, less than one pill, were enough to lull her to sleep as she drove down Highway 74. The Oklahoma City medical examiner, A.J. Chapman, said yes. Eight independent toxicologists, interviewed separately by ABC’s Reasoner Report, National Public Radio and a congressional subcommittee, disagreed, partly because they felt Silkwood had built up a tolerance on a regular diet of the pills.
Olson opted to suppress his curiosity and accept Chapman’s verdict without consulting the other toxicologists. He was content with the notion that Silkwood had died in a drug stupor.
Besides, he had become preoccupied with an aspect of the case that was truly enigmatic: the flecks of plutonium that had suddenly appeared on Silkwood’s skin and in her digestive system the week before her death. The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), which then regulated the nuclear industry, had investigated her contamination and concluded that Silkwood had been infected in her apartment. Olson was puzzled by how the plutonium, which by law had to be kept under strict security, could have escaped the plant.
“The most reasonable explanation seems to be that the gastrointestinal contamination was caused by self-administration by Employe A [Silkwood],” a Kerr-McGee official wrote in a January 1975 letter to the AEC. By Kerr-McGee’s reckoning, Silkwood had deliberately swallowed a microscopic dose of plutonium at work and walked undetected past the alpha counters at the door (which cannot spot internal contamination) as part of a bizarre plot to embarrass the company. At the time, Silkwood was regularly emptying her urine and fecal wastes into plastic one-quart boxes for lab tests because four months earlier she had been contaminated in a mishap at the plant and the company was required to monitor her health. Kerr-McGee officials suspected Silkwood tried to doctor her waste samples to prove the plant was chronically unsafe.
While Olson initially had no misgivings about Kerr-McGee’s motives, he began to grow uneasy about the company’s pat assessment of Silkwood’s role. Silkwood’s friends informed him that she had been genuinely scared when she discovered her insides were corrupted with plutonium, which can cause cancer even in small doses. That description did not fit the portrait of a cool-handed actress schemingly popping plutonium in her mouth.
Olson briefly toyed with a countertheory: that Silkwood had slipped a vial of plutonium into her vagina or rectum, then used a syringe to spike her samples at home, accidentally spilling some in the process. Olson tested the syringe found in her apartment, the same one Reading had earlier categorized as the tool of a junkie, but it was not radioactive.
Olson also had doubts about the inherent logic of either theory. Seventy-three workers at the plant had been contaminated in the previous four years. One more could not be that much more embarrassing for the company, and hardly worth the risk to Silkwood.
But what nagged at Olson’s curiosity most of all was the baloney and cheese in her refrigerator. The AEC inspectors had found that the highest concentration of plutonium in the apartment was, oddly, on the two sandwich foods. “The AEC had no idea how it got there, and I didn’t either,” Olson says. “For a while I thought maybe she had been ‘abusing’ herself with a ring of baloney, and that the plutonium had gotten on that way. But I checked and found it was sliced baloney.”
While Olson was mulling, National Public Radio reported in late December 1974 that the AEC was worried about 40 pounds of plutonium that could not be accounted for at the Kerr-McGee plant. At the same time David Burnham, the reporter who was to meet Silkwood at the Holiday Inn, quoted government sources in the New York Times as saying that up to 60 pounds of plutonium might be missing.
In that quantity plutonium is highly valued contraband. It was first discovered in 1940 during the search for the atom bomb and usually occurs as a yellow-green powder or slushy gray liquid. Although it is sometimes available for commercial use under government contract, as at Kerr-McGee, the world’s supply is controlled by the U.S., the U.S.S.R. and the other nations of the nuclear elite. Only 12 pounds are needed for a bomb capable of destroying a medium-sized city. The grade of plutonium being processed at Kerr-McGee has a price set by the government of $70 a gram. But on the black market it could sell for five to ten times that much; 60 pounds could be worth $5-$10 million.
Without pressing Kerr-McGee for details, Olson confirmed that the company had been having trouble with its nulcear inventory. His curiosity was aroused. Silkwood had been contaminated with plutonium; that was indisputable. The plutonium had come from the Kerr-McGee plant; that was a near certainty. Some 40-60 pounds of plutonium were unaccounted for; that appeared to be a well-grounded allegation.
Olson developed a theory: Silkwood had been stealing plutonium.
In early January 1975 he took his theory to Ted Rosack, the acting agent in charge of the FBI’s Oklahoma City bureau. Olson wanted permission to open up a new line of investigation into the alleged disappearance of plutonium. Rosack hesitated, according to a confidant of his, and then decided to discuss the situation with an old friend, William DeBruler, the agent then in charge of the Atlanta bureau, who apparently advised him to submit Olson’s request directly to FBI headquarters.
Olson obligingly prepared an official “letterhead memo” outlining the evidence, being careful not to sound reckless or foolish, according to Rosack’s friend, who says he saw a copy of the memo. Rosack attached his personal note to the “letterhead memo” recommending that Olson be given the go-ahead.
The response from FBI headquarters was an unequivocal rejection that stunned both Olson and Rosack. “Washington sent back an LHM [“letterhead memo”] telling Olson to forget about the missing plutonium, that it didn’t have anything to do with the Silkwood case,” Rosack’s friend says. “In effect, he was told not to poke his nose where it didn’t belong.”
(The FBI’s official stance is that it did not veto any part of Olson’s investigation. But a January 28th, 1975, letter to the General Accounting Office from Thomas Henderson, a deputy director of the Justice Department’s management and labor section, indicates he was aware the FBI was limiting its probe. “The FBI is conducting an investigation to determine if Silkwood’s death was accidental,” he wrote. “The investigation does not include possible suspects or motives.”)
Olson sent another “letterhead memo,” seconded by Rosack, protesting the decision. But that only elicited a sterner warning from Washington to steer clear of a smuggling investigation. Shortly thereafter Rosack was relieved of his position and transferred to Denver, a move that his colleagues interpreted as a demotion.
Olson, meanwhile, stewed about the turgid nay-saying of Washington bureaucrats. He was sure the missing plutonium was a clue to Silkwood’s contamination. He became so consumed that he broke one of the first rules of the FBI’s secrecy code and phoned Joe Pennington, a young prize-winning newsman then at radio station KTOK in Oklahoma City.
The two met in a lightly trafficked bar. Pennington says that Olson, in the grip of outrage and confusion, explained his theory that a smuggling ring was at large in the plant. That coincided with other information Pennington had picked up. So in late January he went on the air with the possibility that smugglers were responsible for the missing plutonium.
Earlier in January Pennington had broadcast a report from a confidential Kerr-McGee source that 40-50 pounds of plutonium seemed to be missing. In response to that report, Kerr-McGee had sent a letter to station KTOK. “The letter pointed out that I was reporting on a very sensitive area and that I might inadvertently be jeopardizing national security,” Pennington says. At that time KTOK officials had assured him they would not be intimidated.
But after his broadcast about smuggling, Pennington says, “I got the feeling Kerr-McGee was putting more pressure on the station. It wasn’t long before it was made clear to me that I was to drop the Silkwood story and move on to other things.” Because he was already embroiled in an unrelated power struggle at the station, Pennington left KTOK in early February for a news job at a radio station in Columbus, Ohio.
He had only been in Columbus a few weeks, he says, when Olson phoned. The FBI agent told Pennington he had just learned from a Kerr-McGee source that up to 120 pounds of plutonium were now missing, most of it since Silkwood’s death. Olson had begun to revise his thinking. He now suspected OCAW higher-ups of stealing the plutonium and contaminating Silkwood to undermine Kerr-McGee. He felt Silkwood had possibly been a pawn or a patsy. Olson entreated Pennington to turn his news-hound’s attention to the OCAW. A few days later Olson called again, Pennington says, but his new employer was not interested in a story that was four months old and four states away. And by this time, the media in Oklahoma City also had begun to neglect the Silkwood case.
The Justice Department, which has jurisdiction over the FBI, seemed even more anxious to be rid of the case. Before Olson’s reports were finished, Phil Wilens, chief of the Justice Department’s management and labor section, was portraying the investigation as a foregone conclusion. On February 12th Wilens sent a memo to Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Keeney which said that no criminality was involved in the case, even though Wilens had then seen only three of the 11 FBI field reports.
The official end came rapidly. In mid-April Wilens directed Thomas Goldstein, a young lawyer in the management and labor section, to draft a final “Fact Memorandum,” a procedure which usually means sifting through all the evidence and reaching an independent verdict. But Goldstein entered the case only two weeks before he was scheduled to leave the Justice Department for a job in Miami, a period in which he also had to foreclose some federal litigation in New York.
“We found that Goldstein made no attempt to clarify the contradictions that screamed out all over the place,” says one congressional investigator. “He never even contacted Olson.”
Goldstein’s “Fact Memorandum” focused only on A.O. Pipkin’s hit-and-run scenario.
To Pipkin, the tire tracks at the scene indicated that Silkwood had skidded violently off the left side of Highway 74, then had straightened the wheel and driven along the shoulder for nearly 100 yards. She had not tried to return to the highway, as if another car prevented her from doing so, until she saw the lurking culvert and frantically turned the steering wheel. Pipkin disputed the Highway Patrol’s asleep-and-drifting theory on three points. He argued that a drifting car, as a Reasoner Report simulation of the accident later showed, would have veered into a field before it reached the culvert. He also felt that the highway’s center-line crest should have steered a drifting car to the right, not the left. And the dent in the Honda’s rear bumper, free of the customary road film that comes from driving the dusty prairie, seemed to him tangible proof that another vehicle had banged into Silkwood’s car.
Goldstein ignored Pipkin’s first point and discounted the other two.
One reason the Honda crashed on the left, Goldstein wrote, was a furious wind that helped shove the lightweight car to its destruction. A fellow Justice Department official later described the wind as a 60-70 mile-per-hour howler. But congressional investigators determined that Goldstein’s information was predicated solely on a tip from an anonymous caller who had phoned the FBI in Dallas. Neither Goldstein nor Olson had bothered to check with the National Weather Bureau, which recorded the wind at the time of the accident at 15 miles per hour out of the north, a modest blow behind the car that should not have interfered with the crash.
The dent in the bumper posed a larger dilemma for Goldstein. The Highway Patrol initially figured wrecker driver Ted Sebring had caused it when he dragged the Honda over the concrete wing wall. But another OCAW auto-crash expert conducted tests which showed the dent resulted from “contact between two metal surfaces.” So Goldstein then suggested that Drew Stephens. Silkwood’s boyfriend, had contrived the dent after the car was turned over to him, a speculation for which there was no evidence whatsoever.
On April 29th, the day before he left the Justice Department, Goldstein issued his “Fact Memorandum.” Such reports are often detailed accounts that number 100 pages or more; Goldstein’s report was four and a half pages long. His conclusion was the same one his boss, Wilens, had predicted 11 weeks earlier: no foul play.
The “Fact Memorandum” was supposed to be the final, official benediction. But Larry Olson wasn’t told about it and remained on the lookout for a way to investigate the OCAW and perk up flagging media interest in the case. When Jacque Srouji came west, he sensed he’d found it.
Jacque Srouji, a one-time wide-eyed FBI informant, now a matronly 32-year-old journalist, first learned about the Silkwood mystery while authoring two articles on nuclear power for Nashville! magazine in late 1974. The articles landed Srouji a small advance from a fledgling Nashville publishing company to write a book about the nuclear industry. Srouji planned to devote a chapter to the Silkwood case because she expected a firsthand account from Olson.
A decade before, when Srouji was a cub reporter at the Nashville Banner, her publisher had instructed her to supply the FBI with special reports on civil rights and antiwar demonstrations she’d covered. Olson had been her control agent in the Nashville bureau between 1963 and 1967.
Srouji left the Banner in 1968 and Olson moved to Oklahoma City soon afterward. She switched briefly to a job at the rival Nashville Tennessean (without telling her new editors of her FBI other life), but quit to spend more time with her three children and to begin freelancing. Then in 1975 the FBI took a renewed interest in Srouji.
While researching her book Srouji went to the Soviet Embassy in Washington to get the U.S.S.R.’s catechism on nuclear power. There she met the second secretary of the embassy, Sergei Zaitsev, not realizing that Zaitsev had long been suspected of being a KGB colonel. When the FBI’s surveillance cameras spotted Srouji talking to Zaitsev, the FBI recruited her to spy on him. Her assignment to unmask Zaitsev, however, ran afoul of her excursion into the Silkwood case.
Srouji arrived in Oklahoma City in early April 1975. Olson welcomed her, glad to resume an old friendship and to have an audience for his suspicions, and he arranged for her to meet Reading at the Kerr-McGee building. Reading tried to indoctrinate her with tales of Silkwood’s sex life, Srouji says, and he confided that the company, in apparent violation of the law, had hired Pinkerton detectives to monitor OCAW activists.
Olson then took her step by step through his investigation and, in another breach of the FBI code, loaned her his files, which she photocopied before returning. He engaged her in a labyrinthine discussion of the war of FBI “letterhead memos” between Oklahoma City and Washington and introduced her to his theory about the missing plutonium and the OCAW. Srouji found it all very overwhelming and complicated. For a while she joined Olson in pursuit of a solution. But she was handicapped by her deadline and once she had gathered enough material for her chapter she grew discouraged about Olson’s quest. By summer she was sidetracked into the Zaitsev caper.
Olson also was growing weary. In October he made one final effort when he finessed FBI protocol and arranged an interview with Dr. Dean Abrahamson, a University of Minnesota physicist-physician. “It was very strange,” Abrahamson recalls. “Most of the questions were about the nuclear material that was unaccounted for at the plant.” In 1974, at the OCAW’s behest, Abrahamson had tried to educate Kerr-McGee’s workers on the menace in plutonium, and Silkwood had later turned to him when she became contaminated. But Abrahamson knew nothing about smuggling.
After that Olson returned full time to other police work. Srouji had resumed working part time on the Tennessean news desk a month earlier. She’d finished her research and had written a first draft. Because Olson’s cooperation had been extracurricular, she had promised not to use his name in her book or mention the “letterhead memos.”
Kitty Tucker is a frizzy-haired, 32-year-old law student. She first read about Silkwood’s death in a Washington Post article, which downplayed the OCAW’s claim of murder. But Tucker continued to follow the case in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Ms. and other magazines, which did not.
Tucker, then the legislative coordinator for the Washington D.C. chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), became a walking encyclopedia on Silkwood and began to empathize with her posthumous plight. She came to view Silkwood as a heroine of women’s liberation, the labor movement and the antinuclear struggle. And, beyond the symbolism, she also saw an unsolved murder.
She asked her husband, an environmentalist named Bob Alvarez, for suggestions and took her concern to Sara Nelson, the national labor task-force coordinator for NOW. On a warm July evening a meeting was held at the rambling frame house near downtown Washington where Tucker lives. Tucker, Alvarez, Nelson and another NOW official agreed to take up the Silkwood cause under the organization’s national banner.
On August 26th Tucker, Nelson and NOW President Karen DeCrow confronted Phil Wilens, John Keeney and two other Justice Department officials in a carpeted government office. The NOW women demanded to know why the Silkwood case had been closed. The Justice Department men, relying on Goldstein’s “Fact Memorandum,” tried to explain away the inquiry, but the women were asking for answers the “Fact Memorandum” didn’t have.
“They started to get irritated and they told us that we must be watching too much television because in real life all crimes are not solved,” Tucker says.
Insulted, the NOW women held a press conference and branded the “Fact Memorandum” a coverup. Then they convened another strategy session. What they needed, they decided, was enough public attention to command a congressional investigation. They launched a petition drive and began soliciting contributions and allies from the disparate ranks of feminism, labor and ecology.
In late September Tucker and Nelson placed a joint call to Silkwood’s parents in Nederland, Texas, a tiny town near the Louisiana border and the Gulf of Mexico. Bill and Merle Silkwood, hardworking, churchgoing Baptists, had been dumbfounded by their daughter’s death and her ensuing notoriety. They blamed themselves for not insisting she come home when she phoned the day before the accident. “She didn’t tell us what she was doing,” says her mother, who works as a bank clerk. “But she sounded scared, and she said she was going to come see us as soon as she finished a few things first.”
The next they knew she was dead. After they read Pipkin’s report, they suspected murder. “Coincidences like that just don’t happen,” says her father, a house painter whose major passion is gardening.
He was pleased when the FBI took the case, he says, because “I was sure the FBI would get to the bottom of this.” To Bill Silkwood the FBI represented old-fashioned integrity. So he was disappointed and chagrined when the FBI and the Justice Department abandoned his daughter’s case. “I don’t know why, but the FBI has let us down,” he told Tucker and Nelson when they called. “I can’t even get a copy of the FBI report.”
Tucker and Nelson invited Silkwood’s parents to an upcoming NOW convention in Philadelphia. Bill and Merle Silkwood, who only vaguely knew of NOW and had never been to Philadelphia, accepted. On October 25th in Philadelphia, Karen Silkwood was presented an honorary NOW membership. The convention crowd fell silent as Merle Silkwood approached the podium and accepted for her daughter.
On November 13th, the first anniversary of Silkwood’s death, NOW proclaimed “Karen Silkwood Memorial Day.” Nelson delivered a moving eulogy to a large antinuclear rally in New York. Four days later 300 nuclear critics from the Ralph Nader-sponsored Critical Mass Conference in Washington held a candlelight vigil in Silkwood’s memory on the steps of Capitol Hill. Bill Silkwood addressed the gathering.
“We taught Karen to speak up when she saw something that was wrong,” he spoke haltingly, emotion breaking his voice. “Maybe that’s why she’s not here tonight. But her death will not have been in vain if you all speak up now and don’t let her killers get away.”
That same weekend the media began to resurrect the Silkwood controversy. Major-length features appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Star and San Francisco Chronicle, and shorter articles were printed in the Washington Post and New York Times.
Simultaneously, the offices of U.S. senators Abraham Ribicoff and Lee Metcalf were besieged with letters and phone calls from NOW members. NOW had targeted Ribicoff and Metcalf because they are chairmen of a committee and subcommittee, respectively, which oversee government operations.
On November 18th Tucker, Alvarez and Nelson led a delegation — which included Silkwood’s parents, NOW official Eleanor Smeal, a Ralph Nader representative, a United Auto Workers leader and a few other associates — to a meeting with Ribicoff and Metcalf. The two senators were not prepared for the stampede of solidarity for a dead plutonium worker. Impressed with their plea and the 8500 petition signatures Tucker brought, Ribicoff and Metcalf promised to reopen the case forthwith. Metcalf was to be in charge of the new investigation, and his investigators were to have sub poena power and all the other necessary accouterments.
Tucker and Nelson were overjoyed. Then, five months later, just as Metcalf was to commence public hearings, they were jolted by a turnabout. Metcalf announced quietly that he was canceling the hearings and annulling the promised investigation.
Metcalf’s abrupt decision came one day after a visit from Kerr-McGee’s chairman of the board, Dean McGee. Metcalf explained that McGee had urged him to drop the investigation because the OCAW was now satisfied with the Justice Department’s “Fact Memorandum.” OCAW president Al Grospiron quickly rebutted McGee’s claim and repeated the union’s discontent with the official verdict. But Metcalf refused to reconsider his decision, or to discuss it with his staff.
Nor was he forthcoming about what else McGee had told him. Metcalf did admit, under further questioning by reporters, that McGee had mentioned the issue of missing plutonium but he declined to say whether McGee had invoked the specter of “national security.”
Peter Stockton, 37 years old, a former Budget Bureau economist and Capitol Hill weapons analyst, now a meticulous congressional investigator, was so intrigued by the Silkwood case when he first read about it that he took a leave of absence to fly to Oklahoma City. Through a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Stockton teamed up with Barbara Newman, National Public Radio’s top Washington reporter, and the two spent several weeks exploring the same clues and interrogating the same witnesses as Larry Olson. In a late-December 1974 radio broadcast they became the first to reveal Kerr-McGee’s inventory problem, the tip that had sent Olson on his search for the missing plutonium.
But Stockton and Newman returned to Washington irritated with their failure to learn more. “I left Oklahoma with the feeling that somebody very powerful didn’t want the full truth to come out,” Stockton says. So when Metcalf’s chief counsel, Win Turner, asked him to help reopen the case a year later, he was enthusiastic. At the time Stockton was working in the House of Representatives for Congressman John Dingell, who agreed to loan him to Metcalf’s staff.
Stockton and Turner’s first discovery was that Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant was about to be shut down. The Energy Research and Development Administration, apparently disquieted by the reemerging Silkwood uproar, had decided not to renew the company’s contract. “We got the feeling that Kerr-McGee caused the cancellation in the hope we would call off our investigation,” Stockton says.
Instead Stockton and Turner forged ahead. They reviewed the bulging file the AEC had maintained on Kerr-McGee and found that AEC officials had been misleading the public about safety and record-keeping problems at the plant. On January 7th, 1975, the AEC had issued a report that tended to minimize Silkwood’s original allegations about dangerous working conditions and falsified lab tests. On the same day, however, according to an AEC internal document, regional director James G. Keppler was telling Dean McGee that his company had “serious management problems” closely paralleling Silkwood’s charges.
Down in Nashville, meanwhile, Jacque Srouji was at the Tennessean copy desk scanning stories from the United Press International teletype when she spotted one about Metcalf’s entry into the case. On her next day off she flew to Washington to “see if anything new had turned up that I could use in my book.” She conferred with Turner, found that “Congress knew less than I did,” and flew back to Nashville.
But Srouji had told Turner about the FBI reports she had photocopied, and he asked Stockton to arrange a followup meeting. A few days later Stockton met Srouji in Nashville. She let him examine a few pages from a stack of papers but, to protect Olson, she did not show him any sensitive reports or say anything about Olson’s smuggling theory.
“I didn’t press her on it,” Stockton says, “because I didn’t want to get into a journalistic hassle over the First Amendment and because I assumed we’d get the same reports from the Justice Department anyway.”
The Justice Department, however, was not cooperating at all. Stockton and Turner had met with John Keeney and another deputy assistant attorney general on November 20th to request the Silkwood file. The Justice Department officials refused.
After Stockton and Turner threatened to inveigh with a subpoena, the Justice Department retreated slightly. On November 25th the two investigators were allowed to inspect Goldstein’s meager “Fact Memorandum.” In a followup meeting a lower-echelon official let it slip that Keeney had specifically censored out Olson’s file on Silkwood’s contamination and the missing plutonium. “We are not sure why,” Stockton wrote in a congressional memo the next day. “It may have made no sense or it may have been too revealing.”
Three weeks later, after more haggling, the Justice Department turned over an edited version of Olson’s investigative file. “The blanks in the file,” Stockton says, “raised some wild questions.” But the Justice Department refused to release the rest of the file, which included Olson’s “letterhead memos.”
On February 13th Stockton tried unsuccessfully to bypass the Justice Department roadblock by phoning Olson in Oklahoma City. “Olson told me that he’d been ordered not to talk to me or anyone else from Congress.”
Stockton made up his mind to fly to Oklahoma City and to Chicago, regional headquarters for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (which had assumed the AEC’s policing duties), for a face-to-face confrontation with Olson and NRC officials about the missing plutonium, in preparation for the hearings. To do so, he needed Senator William Brock from the Senate Government Operations Committee to approve his expense voucher. Weeks passed while Brock delayed, leaving Stockton in an awkward hiatus. Finally, in late March, Stockton and Turner met with a Brock aide. “It was the damnedest meeting I’ve ever been in,” Stockton recalls. “I was told that the Kerr-McGee inventory wasn’t any of my business and that I was overstepping my authority to try and investigate it.”
Baffled, Stockton and Turner appealed to Metcalf for a subpoena of Olson and the Justice Department officials. But a week later Dean McGee intervened and Metcalf dropped the case, plunging the congressional investigation into a crisis.
Stockton’s only administrative mooring now was with Congressman Dingell, a balding 21-year House veteran from suburban Detroit. A year before, shortly after he’d returned from his reporter’s sabbatical, Stockton had talked to Dingell about the alleged missing plutonium at Kerr-McGee. Dingell, who chairs the House Small Business Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, subsequently asked the General Accounting Office for a full report on the inventories of all nuclear facilities, an accounting that was not yet complete. In the meantime Stockton had kept Dingell appraised of the Silkwood investigation, and Dingell’s subcommittee had become an ex officio party to the case.
By this time Stockton had come to view the case as a personal challenge, and he asked Dingell to pick up where Metcalf had left off.
Dingell agreed. Dingell’s father had been a political foe of McGee’s former mentor, Senator Robert Kerr, even though both were Democrats. In a 1950 congressional fight over a bill sponsored by Kerr to benefit big oilmen like himself, the elder Dingell had referred to him as a “horse thief.” Kerr had a reputation for using his influence promiscuously on behalf of the energy industry, his company and himself. During his tenure in the Senate (1948-63), his company’s worth grew seventeen fold and his personal fortune rose from about $1 million to $35 million. One reason was Kerr-McGee’s monopolistic role as a uranium supplier to the government; one AEC contract alone earned the company $300 million. In 1962 the executive director of the Uranium Institute accused Kerr of employing “predatory politics,” and Capitol Hill errand boy Bobby Baker, who looked on Kerr as “a father,” later implicated him in the influence-peddling scandal for which Baker went to prison.
Dingell did not want the Silkwood investigation sacrificed to some lingering senatorial courtesy, and he also felt the Justice Department was snubbing congressional authority in the case. So, even though he had to stretch his subcommittee’s jurisdictional limits to take the case, Dingell scheduled hearings for mid-April.
Justice Department officialdom balked at testifying, however, and since Dingell’s subcommittee lacked subpoena power, Stockton sought out Jacque Srouji, who was in Washington on leave from the Tennessean while she served a temporary stint as a second-class petty officer in the Naval Reserve. She was working with the Navy on Operation Sanguine, a highly secret communications system for submarines, and the FBI was still using her for surveillance on Sergei Zaitsev.
Stockton drove his battered yellow Volkswagen to the Naval Research Laboratory. Unsmiling guards stopped him at the front gate; his congressional standing and “top secret” clearance were insufficient credentials to get inside. While he argued, a uniformed Srouji appeared at the door and rescued him from the guards. During the next hour the two struck a bargain. Srouji’s publisher, hankering for free publicity for her book, had encouraged her to cooperate. As long as she could keep certain confidences, Srouji said, she was glad to testify.
On April 26th the hearings opened. Physicist Karl Z. Morgan, known as a nuclear cheerleader and, more reverently, as the “father of health physics,” was the first witness. As a barometer of Silkwood’s overall credibility, Stockton had asked him to evaluate her allegations about the Kerr-McGee plant. Morgan surprised the subcommittee’s conservative members, who had resisted the hearings, by embracing Silkwood’s criticisms. With one exception, Morgan testified, “I have never known of an operation in this industry that was so poorly operated,” adding that he viewed the situation with “a great deal of consternation and disgust.”
The final witness of the day was Srouji. Her testimony also quarreled with the “Fact Memorandum.” And, though she did not volunteer Olson’s smuggling theory, she called the Justice Department’s closing of the case “very surprising.” Then she woke up her tired listeners by mentioning that her opinions were based on nearly 1,000 pages of documents an FBI agent had provided her.
Newspaper headlines the next day zeroed in on the “surprise witness” who had livened up a dull day of hearings. Reporters began pestering the FBI and Justice Department. Their response was swift and to the point: Srouji was lying. “I was told that I might even be charged with perjury,” Srouji says.
Dazed and bewildered by the harshness of the reaction, she went to the Little Sisters Chapel in Washington to pray for understanding. For three days she tried to sort it out. She had not identified Olson as her source, nor did she intend to, since he stood to be penalized for revealing FBI secrets to a reporter. But she assumed that the FBI knew she had talked to Olson and, therefore, knew she had not lied.
On April 29th, after finishing her day’s work for the Navy, Srouji presented herself at FBI headquarters and was directed to the External Affairs Division. She was still wearing her Navy uniform and carrying her military tote bag. She had been accustomed to camaraderie in the FBI’s company. Now, she says, her treatment was confused, alternating between brusque and sycophantic. From 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., she says, she was interrogated by three top FBI officials, including Homer Boynton and Allison Conley. Boynton acted cheery; Conley was dour. “They grilled me the way detectives do on television,” Srouji says, “as if I were a criminal.”
They wanted to know about her 1,000 pages of photocopied documents. When she admitted seeing “letterhead memos,” she recalls, their eyes chilled over. “Don’t ever tell anyone about them,” she says one official told her.
Boynton and Conley’s major assignment apparently was to get Srouji’s signature on a sworn statement that elaimed she had never “officially receive(d) any documents from an FBI employe.” The key word was “officially,” she explains, because her dealings with Olson had been very unofficial. Eager to repair damaged feelings, she signed the statement.
The FBI officials seemed relieved, she says, but not entirely satisfied. For the next week they stayed in daily contact with her. When she persisted in her refusal to return the photocopied documents, she says, they turned increasingly hostile. One official reminded her the Bureau “could be either your best friend or your worst enemy,” she says, and another threatened to frame her as a Soviet espionage agent if she did not cooperate. At every turn, she remembers, FBI officialdom belabored one message: she was to remain silent — about everything.
On May 3rd she went back to the Tennessean copy desk, feeling depressed and weary and engulfed by a strange paranoia. Waiting for her was Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler with some hard questions and a new dilemma. Suddenly confronted, Srouji confessed her entire FBI history, starting with her role in the Sixties as a sometimes informant.
Seigenthaler pondered that for a day, then decided to fire her. He could not have an FBI spy in his newsroom, he explained, not even one who seemed ready to reject the Bureau.
Srouji’s firing brought events to a head.
An FBI official phoned Srouji the next morning at her apartment, she says, and demanded she brief the FBI on what she had told Seigenthaler. “He sounded very terse and official,” she recalls. “He told me I could be prosecuted if I didn’t cooperate. I was terrified.” Srouji packed toys, clothes and baby food, gathered her two youngest children, left her oldest son with a friend and fled Nashville. For the next ten days she caromed from one motel to another as she drove south, searching for relief from the sudden shattering of her career.
Seigenthaler flew to Washington to file a complaint against the FBI at the Office of Professional Responsibility in the Justice Department. He had spent 15 years trying to suppress an earlier memory of the Bureau. In 1961, while serving as a civil-rights adviser to John Kennedy, Seigenthaler had been beaten unconscious by a segregationist mob while FBI agents watched. Learning that an FBI informant had been on his newspaper’s payroll refueled that old antagonism.
Seigenthaler was less concerned about Srouji’s imbroglio with the Silkwood case. But he’d already publicly blasted the FBI and was prepared to raise a further ruckus in the media until he was given a full explanation of all Srouji’s activities, including her relationship with Olson.
Minutes after Seigenthaler filed his complaint, Homer Boynton dropped by the Washington office of the New York Times for a talk with news editor Bill Kovach and reporter John Crewdson, who was planning to write an article about the Seigenthaler-Srouji interplay. Boynton, one of the FBI officials who had been questioning Srouji, counseled the two to forget the Seigenthaler story because, he said, the Tennessean publisher was “not entirely pure.” Boynton’s unsolicited advice boiled down to an accusation that Seigenthaler had secondhand Mafia ties.
Kovach had worked for Seigenthaler at the Tennessean and the two were friends. But Boynton’s credibility was generally admired at the Times and, as the second-ranking official in the FBI’s External Affairs Division, he seemed an unlikely gossipmonger. So Kovach postponed the story while Crewdson went to Nashville. Crewdson returned with a vindication of Seigenthaler and on May 19th the Times reported the entire episode, though it left unanswered the question of why a member of the FBI’s ruling circle had chosen to slander the Tennessean publisher.
Over at the House Rayburn Building, meanwhile, two other FBI officials were trying to persuade Dingell to drop the Silkwood investigation. They reminded Dingell of his tenuous jurisdiction in the case and provided yet another recounting of Silkwood’s unconventional sex life.
Dingell demanded to know why Srouji, an uncelebrated journalist, had copies of FBI reports when the Justice Department was refusing them to Congress. And he wanted Olson produced for his staff. Grudgingly, the Bureau acceded.
Stockton and Michael Ward, the subcommittee’s general counsel, questioned Olson for more than 40 hours. During that entire time at least one FBI official hovered about, listening to Olson’s every word. “It was like Olson was under house arrest,” Stockton says. “He couldn’t even go to the restroom without an FBI escort.” Olson’s answers, consequently, were often evasive and unsubstantial. He made only one reference to the thwarting of his investigation, remarking cryptically that he had not been allowed to interview anyone in the OCAW.
But twice during that week Olson called Stockton’s home late at night. He refused to give his name and asked to be regarded as an anonymous tipster, though Stockton recognized his muted drawl. “Now I know what it feels like to be captured by the Gestapo,” he told Stockton.
Stockton also remembers Olson pleading with him: “Please, leave Srouji out of this. She’s just going to get hurt unnecessarily. The FBI will never tell you the truth. They can’t afford to. Just forget the whole thing. Give it up. You’re in over your head. This thing is so complicated you’ll never figure it out. You’ll just go crazy trying.”
On May 7th the Dingell staff heard Olson’s limited testimony behind closed doors. Under restrictions set down by the FBI, the staff members were not permitted to ask about Olson’s talks with Srouji.
On May 20th the subcommittee resumed open hearings. Deputy Associate Director James Adams appeared before the microphone to disassociate the FBI from the Olson-Srouji talks without conceding there had been any. Seigenthaler also appeared. He had come to put the FBI’s shabby treatment of him on the Congressional Record. But in the course of that denunciation he testified that Srouji had told him she had photocopied Olson’s documents and showed him two letters from Olson, contradicting the FBI’s official denials and publicly reviving the controversy.
For weeks now Stockton had been brooding about the strange, unsettling nature of the case. He worked long into the evenings, pouring over his data, wondering why the nation’s top law enforcement officials were acting so guilty. Since Srouji’s testimony, their actions had become more exaggerated and desperate.
In those three weeks the FBI had been vigorously trying to undermine Srouji’s credibility with the subcommittee. Associate FBI Director Nicholas Callahan, the Bureau’s number-two man (who later was forced out of his job in an unrelated corruption scandal), and his chief deputy, James Adams, had hinted to Stockton and Dingell that Srouji might be a KGB spy. When that rumor failed to take hold, the FBI men had tried again. Srouji should be ignored, they had suggested, because the Army had discharged her for mental instability.
Callahan and Adams had then produced a copy of her alleged psychiatric discharge in 1962. “I ordinarily don’t believe in conspiracies,” Stockton says. “But I started to think that maybe the FBI had forged her discharge paper. It just seemed too pat.”
Srouji said she had received an honorable discharge with no mention of psychiatric reasons. The FBI had been aware of her Army background when it used her as an informant, she pointed out, as was the Naval Reserve when it assigned her to the sensitive Operation Sanguine.
On May 24th Stockton huddled with Dingell to tote up the growing list of discrepancies. Both were convinced that the FBI and Justice Department had tried to impede, manipulate and deceive their investigation. “Dingell has a reputation for not letting go once he gets his teeth into something. He’s like a bulldog,” says Stockton. “And this time he was ready to chomp down hard on the Silkwood case. I’ve seldom seen him so worked up.”
The next day Dingell sent a letter to Attorney General Edward Levi demanding an immediate, unabridged explanation of the FBI’s and Justice Department’s behavior.
Srouji, meanwhile, returned to Nashville hoping that the controversy about her had passed away. Instead she was greeted by an FBI official who was still trying to retrieve Olson’s file. She learned that FBI agents, on a mission to find her and the documents, had visited her parents and grandmother during her ten-day flight.
At first she had assumed the government was worried about the file because certain reports, like the “Fact Memorandum,” showed how the Justice Department had twisted facts to disprove the hit-and-run theory. But that did not make sense because Stockton and Dingell already had seen the “Fact Memorandum.” Then she remembered how apprehensive the FBI officials had been when she mentioned the “letterhead memos.”
Olson had told her about the exchange of “letterhead memos” over his smuggling theory, but she had generally discounted the theory because it lacked proof. Now she began to reevaluate it. If FBI officialdom thought she had the “letterhead memos” and was afraid of them, she decided, then Olson’s theory must be right.
All the pieces suddenly fit. Silkwood’s missing manila folder must have contained evidence of a plutonium black market. The smugglers must have contaminated her refrigerator and run her off the road. Now, for “national security” reasons or because of professional incompetence, the Justice Department was covering up a murder.
Then on June 4th, while she stood in line at the Nashville unemployment office, two local television news teams asked her for an impromptu interview. She had considered holding a large-scale press conference. But presented with this opportunity, she blurted out her secret, a solution to the Silkwood mystery distilled from Olson’s findings and her own analysis. A smuggling ring was the culprit, she said.
Dingell was not willing to believe all of Srouji’s analysis, but he seemed resolute in his decision to press the FBI and Justice Department for the truth.
Then two weeks later, on June 21st, shortly after the deadline Dingell had imposed on the attorney general, a Mafia call girl from suburban Detroit named Dingell as one of her clients. “My first reaction,” says one Dingell staffer, “was that the FBI had decided the best way to deal with Dingell was to smear him like everyone else.” The call girl, Lois Herman, insisted that the FBI had not encouraged her to implicate Dingell in a sex scandal, and Dingell denied the accusation. But it turned out that the FBI had inexplicably tipped off local police to Herman and that Herman’s close friend, another call girl who had helped set up her clientele, is a longtime FBI informant.
For the next five months, the Silkwood investigation stayed in limbo while Dingell occupied himself with other legislative affairs and tended to his reelection chores.
Rolling Stone spent the fall of 1976 retracing the two-year history of the Silkwood case. Among the dozens of enduring questions, three seemed most basic. Was Silkwood carrying documents that are now missing? Is plutonium missing from the Kerr-McGee plant? And why is the federal government engaged in a cover-up?
The answer to the missing papers question is an almost definite “yes.” According to an AEC report, Kerr-McGee supervisors found out that Silkwood was collecting a dossier for the OCAW shortly before her death. Two persons who saw Silkwood at a union meeting the night of the accident say she was carrying a large manila folder. Jean Jung, a friend, says Silkwood told her the documents in the folder would “get” Kerr-McGee. Alma Hall, a lukewarm Silkwood supporter, says she sat next to Silkwood and remembers typed and handwritten documents stuffed in the folder. State trooper Rick Fagan says he picked up papers matching that description at the accident scene and put them back in the Honda.
In the interim, Kerr-McGee personnel twice visited the garage where the car was stored. The first visit was about midnight, five hours after the accident, ostensibly to check for plutonium contamination. An AEC inspector and trooper Fagan accompanied the Kerr-McGee representatives but the AEC man admits that documents could have been stolen without him noticing. The second visit, this time without Fagan, was the following morning. This time the Kerr-McGee men were unchaperoned. Harold Smith, the assistant garage manager, says that just before the visit he picked up a letter from the car floor. “It was from somebody in Canada who was inviting this Silkwood girl to a party,” he says. “I put it back but I remember it because it mentioned a cigarette machine that was going to roll some ‘joints’ and I had never heard of that expression before.” Kerr-McGee officials later quoted from the letter when they described Silkwood’s pot-smoking proclivities to reporters.
But neither the letter nor the documents were among the belongings that Smith turned over to Wodka, Stephens and Burnham, the three men Silkwood was to meet the night she died.
The answer to the missing plutonium question is more equivocal. Reliable government sources have told Rolling Stone that twice in 1974 the Kerr-McGee inventory was absent substantial amounts of plutonium — over 20 pounds in February and under 20 pounds in September. Both times Kerr-McGee told the AEC it found the missing nuclear fuel through accounting adjustments or lodged in pipes. The AEC inspected and agreed that all 40 pounds had been recovered.
But that may not mean it was. Even under ideal conditions, government inspectors concede, the technicalities and handicaps of rechecking a nuclear inventory often force them simply to accept the company’s word. And, given the scandal that would ensue, it is in the company’s interest to lie rather than admit a shortfall.
Kerr-McGee has furthermore taken the position that no discussion of missing nuclear material is for the public arena. Even if plutonium has been stolen, Kerr-McGee says, they will not inform the media. Their reasoning is that blackmailers or terrorists could use the information to their advantage. The AEC and NRC have often brandished the same logic in refusing to disclose such statistics to Congress.
The AEC’s public files on the Kerr-McGee plant also reflect a chronic concern for the company’s lack of accountability. In November 1972, two years after the plant opened, the AEC told Kerr-McGee in a letter that “we are particularly concerned about the superficial treatment which you have given to measurement problems.” During 1972, according to the New York Times, 50 pounds of plutonium were unaccounted for at the plant. In March 1974 the AEC directed Kerr-McGee to strengthen its security program. (At the time the AEC did not know that one of two security guards at the plant was a convicted armed robber, out on parole, who had been hired under the alias Leonardo Crusher.) In April 1974 the AEC warned Kerr-McGee that its operating license might have to be amended because of its inability to account for all its plutonium. “It is imperative that appropriate steps be taken toensure compliance,” the AEC wrote. In August 1974, after another inspection, the AEC noted that part of Kerr-McGee’s security program was still in apparent violation of federal rules.
In January 1975, shortly after Olson sent his “letterhead memo” requesting permission to investigate possible smuggling at the plant, the NRC (which had just replaced the AEC) sent three safety experts to inspect the plant’s inventory procedures and security program. In a letter to the regional director the NRC commissioners asked to be kept informed on a “day-to-day basis of the progress of upgrading the safeguard program at this plant.” NRC commissioner Victor Gilinsky flew to Oklahoma City for a firsthand look. Simultaneously, Olson was obtaining information that up to 120 pounds of plutonium were missing.
At that point the NRC abruptly stopped sending angry letters to Kerr-McGee and instead increased the company’s allowable margin of error by 250%, as if the NRC no longer wanted to reconcile the inventory figures or had been ordered not to try. (NRC officials have since refused comment on this mysterious turnaround.)
All of which leaves the question of responsibility for any missing plutonium open to several possible answers.
Some suspects, however, probably can be eliminated. Olson’s original theory that Silkwood or others in the OCAW were involved does not hold up. Silkwood did not have the means to market stolen plutonium, and the OCAW has been in the forefront of calling for full disclosure of the case.
Logistically, smuggling 40 to 120 pounds of plutonium from the plant would have required an unlikely conspiracy of 15 or 20 workers. The plutonium was more vulnerable to theft while en route to the government testing facility at Hanford, Washington. Shipments could have been rerouted and then sold on the black market.
Because Kerr-McGee is charged with keeping a close watch on the plutonium, it seems likely that any largescale smuggling would have involved complicity at the company’s upper levels. Someone would have had to falsify records, lie to AEC inspectors and locate black market buyers.
So little is known about the nuclear black market that no one is absolutely sure it even exists. But some insiders privately suspect that the nuclear industry, like the armaments industry, is guilty of cheating on its government contracts. Allegedly, companies are stockpiling nuclear material as an investment — “they expect plutonium to be worth ten times more than gold in a few years,” says one expert — or are finding ways to sell it to foreign countries that want to join the nuclear elite.
In September 1976, the General Accounting Office (GAO) submitted a report to Congressman Dingell that, he says, “clearly shows that there is no factual way the government can determine whether nuclear material is lost or stolen.” According to the GAO, at least 11,000 pounds of weapons-grade nuclear material, mostly enriched uranium and plutonium, is unaccounted for at nuclear plants around the country. Some of it was lost through the vagaries of industrial processing, though it is improbable that all 11,000 pounds were.
The GAO also found two plants which had about 120 pounds more nuclear fuel in their possession than they showed on their inventory books, material that could have been sold clandestinely without NRC knowing it.
In October 1975 the Hudson Institute, a politically conservative think tank, issued a study that warned of a “gray market” in which nuclear companies use legal loopholes to circumvent government controls on plutonium and uranium. Such loopholes allow companies to bypass congressional scrutiny and sell nuclear contracts to international consortiums. The GAO report roundly criticized Congress for not taking steps to correct the situation. The Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy reacted to the criticism by trying to sanitize the report, a move that Dingell prevented only by personally governing its release. The Joint Committee, which was recently stripped of some powers, had a history of babying the nuclear industry and consorting with its representatives. The Watergate special prosecutor’s office found that a nuclear lobbyist in 1972 gave three committee members undisclosed cash contributions apparently intended for their personal use. Common Cause president David Cohen recently called the Joint Energy Committee “a huckster for the nuclear power industry.” Common Cause likewise has cited the NRC for its incestuous relations with nuclear companies, noting that 87% of top NRC officials previously worked for private concerns holding NRC contracts.
Such coziness could explain why the NRC seemed to pull back from a hard look at Kerr-McGee’s inventory in early 1975. And if Silkwood unwittingly stumbled across falsified inventory records, that would explain why Kerr-McGee officials might try to recover her manila folder, and why Dean McGee might intervene with Senator Metcalf to quash a congressional investigation.
The FBI and Justice Department might aid a coverup simply to avoid a scandal that would jeopardize the nuclear industry’s credibility. The Kerr-McGee plant held a key to the latest nuclear technology. Plutonium was being processed for experiments in a new nuclear reactor, the “fast-breeder,” which is scheduled to replace conventional uranium reactors. Or their role might be cloaked in a larger definition of “national security.” Olson told friends he learned that Kerr-McGee sent a shipment of plutonium, not on regular consignment, to the “Special Projects Program” in Hanford, Washington, a few weeks before Silkwood’s death. As far as can be determined, the Hanford facility does not have a “Special Projects Program.”
One theory, to which some nuclear experts subscribe, is that the CIA diverted this shipment to Israel.
The CIA’s historic role in the nuclear field has been to protect American breakthroughs in technology. According to several people familiar with national security activities, however, the CIA has abetted U.S. allies in developing nuclear weapons. Israel allegedly has been a chief beneficiary. Investigative reporter Tad Szulc, known for his CIA contacts, says that the Agency supplied Israel with key scientific secrets and nuclear contraband in the mid-Fifties. An NRC investigator who looked into the 1965 disappearance of 400 pounds of enriched uranium from the NUMEC Company in Pennsylvania says he believes the nuclear fuel went to Israel. Early in 1976 Time magazine reported that Israel now has 13 atomic bombs in its arsenal.
If the CIA was smuggling Kerr-McGee’s plutonium overseas, it would expect the company’s support. Both Dean McGee and Robert Kerr have longstanding ties with the defense and intelligence communities. In the early Sixties McGee served as a presidential appointee on the Arms Control and Disarmament Advisory Commission, a group that helps oversee U.S. policies on nuclear weapons proliferation. At the same time Senator Kerr had jurisdiction over weapons policies and was privy to Pentagon and CIA secrets as chairman of the Senate Aeronautics and Space Sciences Committee. Kerr also worked closely with the Joint Energy Committee and, at times, served as a liaison from the nuclear industry to the CIA. According to one CIA source, Kerr’s relationship with the CIA dated from 1948 when the Agency provided money and other political assistance in his first race for the Senate.
If the CIA did engineer the smuggling, it almost certainly would compel the Justice Department to join in a coverup. A recent congressional investigation corroborated an allegation that the CIA has had a pact with the Justice Department since 1954 to keep many crimes secret in the name of “national security.” And if the CIA is orchestrating the coverup, that could explain any and all of the mishaps that have beset the Silkwood case.
Washington — An afternoon sun pools warmly on the hardwood floor in the rambling frame house. Kitty Tucker’s son is still at school and her baby daughter is napping. She is hunched over the living-room table sorting through a sheaf of legal papers. She has skipped her law school classes for the past week to help attorney Dan Sheehan prepare a lawsuit.
On November 5th, 1976, shortly before the second anniversary of Karen Silkwood’s death, the lawsuit is filed in federal court. It accuses Kerr-McGee officials of conspiring to violate Silkwood’s civil rights, charges FBI officials with conducting a coverup and asks for $160,000 in reparations. The suit is filed on behalf of Silkwood’s parents.
Tucker is now president of the Supporters of Silkwood (SOS), a group dedicated to finding out what really happened on that autumn night outside Oklahoma City.
A few days later Sara Nelson, now Tucker’s good friend and communal roommate, sails through the front door with happy news. A California foundation has just donated $3,000 and folk singer Holly Near may do a benefit concert. There are hugs all around. Earlier the Emergency Civil Liberties Foundation, an old left coalition in New York, agreed to act as a funding conduit, and OCAW locals have started mailing in small contributions.
Bob Alvarez, Tucker’s husband, comes home late from his job at the Environmental Policy Center. In his spare time he has been researching the history of Kerr-McGee. Among other things, he has learned that in 1967, Kerr-McGee prevailed on the Joint Committee to stop the Labor Department from ordering the industry to install ventilation shafts in its uranium mines. That decision helped inflict 300 miners with a fatal cancer.
Alvarez, Nelson and Tucker form the core of SOS. They are convinced that Silkwood’s death can serve as a lesson about the dangers the nuclear industry holds and the terrible power it wields. They worry, though, that Congress will try to solve the problem by implementing proposals in the so-called “Barton Paper.” Alvarez has obtained a copy of this report, which the NRC commissioned in 1975, and sees in it the handwriting of a nuclear police state. The “Barton Paper” raises the possibility of a special police force empowered to conduct domestic surveillance without a court order, to detain nuclear critics and dissident scientists without filing formal charges and, under certain circumstances, to torture suspected nuclear terrorists.
“Our worst nightmare,” Alvarez says, leaning forward in an overstuffed chair, “is that the Silkwood case will be twisted somehow to put the stamp of approval on this kind of government criminality.”
“We can see it happening,” Tucker adds. “We’re not as naive now as when we first got involved in this. I guess that’s the big lesson we’ve learned — why not to trust your government.
Nederland — The frost is late again in this sweaty slice of Texas. On November 13th the eerie coincidence of the year before is repeated. As if on cue, the morning sun brings the yellow and lavender chrysanthemums into full blossom.
Bill Silkwood has just returned from a week’s trip to Washington where he gave final approval to the suit. The Silkwoods have devoted a lot of thought to the legacy of their daughter’s death. More than anything, they want the truth to come out. “It wouldn’t be right to go back to the way we were and forget it happened,” her father says. “And it ain’t gonna be right until we make Kerr-McGee and the FBI account for what they’ve done.” But the Silkwoods admit to a certain apprehension as they pursue this course.
A year before, as they were calling on senators Ribi-coff and Metcalf to reopen the case, another daughter, Rosemary, was shaken up and slightly injured by a side-swiping motorist in Nederland. Then, while the suit was being readied, a phone caller pretending to be Merle Silkwood tried to lure their youngest daughter, Linda, from school to an unknown rendezvous. The caller asked Linda’s high school principal to send her outside so she could be picked up for a fictitious doctor’s appointment. The ploy failed only because Linda became suspicious and double-checked with her mother.
Bill Silkwood believes both incidents were warnings meant to scare him. But, he says, he will not be deterred. Recently the Silkwoods signed a contract with a Hollywood movie group authorizing it to produce a full-length narrative film based on their daughter’s life and death. As planned now, the movie will depict the former plutonium worker as the victim of a mysterious conspiracy.
Larry Cano, the film group’s coproducer, says he’s been harassed ever since he began work on this movie. He has been tailed, he says, and a Los Angeles loan company has been questioned about his finances. According to Pacific Finance branch representative Karen M. Kirish, a man called on October 4th and told her Cano was a suspected subversive and revolutionary. The man “claimed to be investigating on behalf of the Defense Department,” she says, but he turned out to be James Reading, security chief at Kerr-McGee.
Nashville — Jacque Srouji is feeding the red-tailed sharks and African frogs in the two aquariums she has squeezed into her snug, modestly furnished apartment. The miniature creatures stare vacantly at one of their fellows, a frenzied newt caught between the air pipe and the side of the tank, until Srouji notices his predicament and nimbly frees him.
Sometimes, she says, she feels just as trapped, entangled in a skein of fate over which she has no control. For the past several months she has been a recluse. Many friends have shunned her, she says, because they are unsure about her role in this bizarre story. The rumor that the FBI started about her being a Soviet spy is still making the rounds at parties she no longer attends.
Before her impromptu press conference in early June, she says, someone walked up to her in a Washington airport with an anonymous threat: “Do you know what happens to enemy agents? We have to shut them up!” Soon afterward she suffered a miscarriage, four months short of bearing her fourth child.
“I thought I really might get killed,” she says. “It’s incredible, I know, but I was really scared.”
This fall, after a self-imposed moratorium, she begins talking to reporters again. Among her first interviews is a breakfast at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Nashville. She is shy and worried about seeming overly paranoid. While sipping coffee, she spots a man trying to look pre-occupied with his newspaper. He is Henderson Hillin, an FBI agent she knows.
A few days later, while lunching with another reporter, Hillin and two other FBI agents take up seats nearby. But by now Srouji’s usual hardy humor is restored. She sends the reporter over to sit next to them until they grow uncomfortable and leave.
The FBI has continued to badger her for the documents she photocopied. On December 1st Allison Conley, a top FBI official from Washington, confers with her lawyer in the office of the U.S. attorney in Nashville. Conley outlines an ultimatum: either Srouji hands over every document or she will be prosecuted for possession of stolen government material. Her answer is an un-hesitating “no.”
She has the documents hidden away because she has come to regard them as her insurance. “The way I feel now is that no one will try to kill me as long as no one knows where they are,” she says.
At the same time the final galleys of her book, Critical Mass, are sent to the printer. She has rewritten parts of the Silkwood chapter but has not changed the scope of the book. Instead she may write a second book and tell the entire story of how her life became entwined with Silk wood’s death.
The Silkwood case has nearly destroyed Srouji’s journalistic career and her 12-year friendship with the FBI and marked her for notoriety. Yet she remains drawn to the case. She feels an affinity for Silkwood — two women about the same age, similar backgrounds, taking chances, working undercover, obtaining secret documents and then falling victim to some large, sinister force. She feels that both, in their own way, have become blemished martyrs. “I’m glad I stood up and spoke out,” Srouji says. “I don’t envy Olson. The worst for him may be yet to come.”
Oklahoma City — From FBI headquarters atop the 16th floor of the new federal building here, the prairie sky looks ambivalent. The clouds are inhospitably dark overhead but the low-flying sun gives the horizon a pewter sheen.
Larry Olson nervously drums his fingers on the desk top, then lurches from his chair and paces the tiny interrogation room where he receives reporters. He is a man torn.
Congressman Dingell has announced the Silkwood hearings will resume on December 2nd after the national elections. If they do, Olson may become a scapegoat. Even though he has kept quiet about his smuggling theory, the FBI may have to renounce him to ease off a political hot spot. Olson is openly contemptuous of Dingell. “He’s just in it for the publicity,” the FBI man pouts. “He doesn’t give a damn.”
Olson talks himself into a hopeful tirade. “Dingell’s got his own problems. He’s got that Mafia moll to worry about. If you ask me, you’re not going to hear from Dingell on this case again. He’s too much of a politician.”
But if the Dingell subcommittee doesn’t follow through, the case may never be solved.
“I don’t think it can be,” Olson says, getting up to usher out his visitor. But at the door, his look of intensity fades and he pauses. “Let me know if you come up with anything new,” he says. “There are a few things in this case that I personally would like to know.”
Washington — On December 2nd Dingell’s scheduled hearings are canceled. For six months the FBI and Justice Department have delayed an answer to Dingell’s demand for a full explanation. Now they refuse to testify. Their excuse is that they are being sued by Silkwood’s parents.
On December 7th the House Democratic Caucus votes on a motion to strip the subcommittee chairmanship from Dingell. The vote is 85 to 67 against Dingell. The political machinations of the move are convoluted. But Dingell’s removal is obviously to the advantage of Kerr-McGee, the FBI and the Justice Department.
Unless some other congressional subcommittee takes the case, the Silkwood investigation is dead.