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FBI's cover-up — Karen Silkwood, part 2
Missing plutonium, FBI's stonewalling, and a mysterious journalist with a murky history
[When I began writing this, I hoped to narrate it in two parts. But the story deserves a third part, because what happened in the Silkwood affair was surreal. —SA]
Continued from Part One.
“It looks to me as if there’s a cover-up. And there is every reason to believe this is a cover-up.”
Silkwood’s boyfriend and OCAW did not share the police’s eagerness to rule her death an accident. Wary of the billion-dollar corporation that had access deep inside the AEC, the union hired a private investigator — Adolphus Pipkin — who specialised in vehicle accidents. And Drew Stephens secured her father’s consent and, a day after the incident, had her car towed to a garage that belonged to his friend.
Pipkin found dents on the rear bumper that could not have been caused by the head-on crash. He also found that the sides of the steering wheel had been bent forward. Silkwood had braced against it just before the crash, which meant that she wasn’t asleep when the car went off the road.
The police dismissed these claims, so Pipkin sent the bumper to multiple experts around the country. They reported the dents did not contain concrete or mud or anything that would corroborate the police’s version.
Pipkin then explained his hypothesis to Mazzocchi, who consulted a lawyer:
“He [Pipkin] has told me there is evidence to suggest that Ms. Silkwood's car was hit from behind by another vehicle which caused her to leave the road and hit the concrete culvert.”
Pipkin’s final report in December concluded the car did not drift off the highway — as expected if the driver had fallen asleep — but had been out of control before it left the highway due to impact by another vehicle. And the dents on the rear bumper weren’t because of the accident, but likely proximate to it. The police lost no time in trashing his conclusions, trying their best to bury the matter, but left many questions unanswered.
Meanwhile, shortly after Silkwood’s death, Kerr-McGee prevailed over the union in negotiations, and got the contract it wanted.
Media attention & missing fuel
Tony Mazzocchi complained to multiple federal agencies about Kerr-McGee. The National Regulatory Commission (which took over the regulatory function from the AEC) sent his complaint to the FBI, which passed it to the Justice Department. And the National Labor Relations Board sent his complaint to the FBI because it determined that Kerr-McGee had violated the National Labour Relations Act.
The AEC released 3 reports about the whole matter, concluding in one that Silkwood had been deliberately contaminated outside the Cimarron plant. But they hadn’t even tried to find out who had done it. In another report, they accepted that there was truth in Silkwood’s allegation that Kerr-McGee had faked quality control data, but sought to downplay the extent. AEC even claimed to have interviewed another whistleblower — Jean Jung — who later signed a sworn affidavit she had never spoken with them.
In December, Barbara Newman from NPR travelled to Crescent to investigate the Silkwood incident. Later that month, she broadcast that Kerr-McGee couldn’t account for 44 to 66 pounds of plutonium. The next day, the New York Times reported that thousands of pounds of nuclear fuel were missing in fifteen plants in the United States.
An unnamed official told Burnham [NYT reporter] that one plant could not account for 9000 pounds of highly enriched uranium. Forty pounds is enough to make a bomb capable of killing thousands.
Newman also disputed the police’s conclusion that Silkwood had died in an accident, getting several experts to explain that the 0.35mg of methaqualone in her blood — cited by the coroner as evidence she was likely to have fallen asleep — was lower than a therapeutic level. Hardly enough to cause her to fall asleep at the wheel, especially if she had been consuming it for some time. And Newman tore into the police’s version of events, highlighting irregularities and gaps in their investigation.
After Newman’s broadcast, Karen Silkwood’s death attracted enough attention for other broadcasters and journalists to look into it, building up and sustaining media attention just when Kerr-McGee and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol would have hoped it would die a quiet death. The police’s version was challenged by Ms magazine, Rolling Stone, and the NYT. Among them, the Rolling Stone went further and claimed that Karen Silkwood had been murdered. Its reporter, Howard Kohn, fleshed out the hypothesis that while investigating quality control data, Silkwood had stumbled upon a plutonium smuggling operation at the Cimarron plant, and that had led to her murder.
FBI & Dept of Justice
Shortly after Pipkin released his interim findings in November 1974, Mazzocchi wired them to the attorney general who referred the report to the FBI for investigation. Six months later, on 1 May 1975, the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that they were closing the Karen Silkwood file.
Silkwood’s accident “did not appear to be murder.”
Mazzocchi wasn’t convinced. Not only did he have doubts about the thoroughness of the FBI’s investigation, an incident that had occurred in February had convinced him there was more to Silkwood’s death than just an accident.
After an event in Virginia, Mazzocchi had two martinis over 3 hours, and then left. Driving back to Washington, he blacked out and crashed, suffering brain lacerations that eventually healed.
He wasn’t a lightweight when it came to drinking, and was convinced that two martinis couldn’t have caused him to black out. Someone had spiked them, he thought. He tested his hypothesis by chugging drinks while two friends watched to find out how many drinks it took for him to pass out. He was still standing after five.
When the DOJ announced they were closing the file, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) took up the fight. Kitty Tucker and Sara Nelson consulted Mazzocchi, then organised protest rallies in 80 cities for Karen Silkwood.
NOW ramped up the pressure. A delegation visited the DOJ and enquired about the Silkwood investigation. The answers they received were far from satisfactory. The delegation walked out to face 100 reporters and cameras.
“It looks to me as if there’s a cover-up. And there is every reason to believe this is a cover-up.”
—Karen DeCrow, President (NOW)
NOW followed it up with clever lobbying in Washington. Nelson and Tucker met senators and aides with 7,000 petitions from NOW members seeking a congressional investigation into Silkwood’s death. And they got one; Lee Metcalf’s subcommittee in the senate, and John Dingell’s subcommittee in the house would investigate. But they would focus on whether govt. agencies had done enough to protect workers from nuclear hazards.
The investigators asked the DOJ for all documents from the Silkwood investigation. They received a summary from the DOJ instead, and it was full of inconsistencies and errors. When they asked for more reports, like the one on Silkwood’s contamination, they were told that since the investigation was still open, the DOJ wouldn’t provide them the document.
The investigating team was livid. As long as the DOJ investigation remained open, all FBI files related to the Silkwood affair would remain closed and inaccessible. The DOJ and the FBI were stonewalling them.
“Possibly because in preparing the summaries, they have learned the inadequacy of the investigation.”
—Win Turner, chief counsel of Metcalf’s subcommittee.
The investigating team persevered, finally wearing down the DOJ and getting restricted access to their files. But they could only read those files in the DOJ’s headquarters, and couldn’t copy them or make notes. But Turner and Peter Stockton kept at it, plugging away at every lead, using the subcommittee’s weight to get the DOJ to progressively release more information.
And the more they dug into the DOJ and FBI’s investigation, the more they realised how shambolic it had been. They also realised that some reports — Silkwood Contamination Fact Memorandum, for example — had been hastily written after the subcommittee demanded information. Turner and Stockton now demanded access to the FBI’s files, hoping that those would yield more information.
That was when a journalist named Jacque Srouji insinuated herself into the congressional investigation. Srouji claimed she had read the FBI’s files on the Silkwood investigation, and had made copies. When asked how, she told Turner that the FBI agent who had directed the investigation was an old friend. But she said she couldn’t give them the files until she cleared it with her book editor, Dominic de Lorenzo, because she was writing a book about Silkwood.
Turner and Stockton pursued that lead. De Lorenzo assured them that Srouji had copies of FBI Letterhead Memos (LHM), but the documents Srouji then gave them were Kerr-McGee files, not FBI LHMs. And de Lorenzo’s office was remarkably uncluttered by paper and manuscripts typically found all over any publisher’s office. At that point, Stockton and Turner felt that Srouji and de Lorenzo were trying to get publicity for her book by insinuating themselves into the investigation. Or perhaps the investigators were being set up.
Despite their wariness, Srouji wouldn’t leave them alone. She called Stockton and told him she was being warned against cooperating with the investigation by the FBI. And with the DOJ and FBI continuing to stonewall, her copies of FBI documents would be the closest they would ever get. But those copies never arrived. Srouji appeared to have changed her mind about sharing them. And when she came to Washington and met them, they found out that she had since joined the Naval Reserve and was posted at the Pentagon. She was also, occasionally, dining with a diplomat from the Soviet embassy.
When Stockton next met her, he mentioned that the documents she had shared carried verbatim reports of conversations that took place in Silkwood’s apartment before her death. His conclusion was that her apartment had been bugged. Srouji agreed:
“Well, in the files that I looked through — both the Kerr-McGee and the Bureau files, there were what appeared to be transcripts of conversations.”
Throughout that conversation, however, Srouji tried to discredit Silkwood, referring to the fact that she smoked marijuana, drank, was sexually promiscuous, and suffered from depression. Stockton offered her a deal. The subcommittee wouldn’t subpoena documents in her possession if she appeared before the subcommittee and testified.
Hearings & beyond
Subcommittee hearings began in April 1976. Among the many called to testify was Jacque Srouji. And she spent most of her time before the committee discrediting Silkwood, raking up her sexual orientation, her alcohol and drug consumption, and insinuating that Silkwood suffered from a mental illness. She added that in her opinion, Silkwood hadn’t contaminated herself. And she slyly suggested that OCAW had a stronger motive.
But during cross-examination, she acknowledged she had copies of nearly 1,000 pages of FBI documents related to the case. This was unexpected. Srouji had made nearly no effort to protect the identity of her confidential source. It wouldn’t be the last time Srouji acted in an unpredictable manner.
That bit of testimony, however, gave the subcommittee the opening they needed to demand equal access to Srouji’s FBI source: Larry Olson, Sr. As a result, Stockton and his colleague were allowed to interview Olson at the J. Edgar Hoover building.
Stockton and Ward were convinced that Olson had never seriously tried to find out if someone contaminated Silkwood to frighten her. Nor had he tried, during the investigation, to find out if she had documents in her possession at the time of her death. And their efforts paid off when, after badgering Olson with questions one afternoon, he admitted Srouji had a special relationship with the FBI.
The subcommittee demanded that the FBI send someone over to explain its relationship with Jacque Srouji. And after some more stonewalling, James Adams, deputy associate director of the FBI, confessed that since 1964, Srouji had occasionally worked for the FBI while working as a journalist. FBI had an understanding with the newspaper she worked for, Adams told them; the Nashville Banner would pay her salary, and the FBI would reimburse it for out-of-town expenses. But that relationship had ended in 1968.
Then Adams said that the subcommittee’s discretion was essential because Srouji was being investigated by the FBI as a double agent. She had been photographed entering and leaving the Soviet embassy. When asked why the FBI was keeping tabs on her if their relationship ended in 1968, Adams did not answer. The FBI’s cooperation wouldn’t extend beyond that point.
Srouji, it soon emerged, had been an informant and agent provocateur for the FBI since 1964. She had infiltrated pro-Palestinian Arab student groups under the alias Lelia Hassan, and reported to the FBI about them. She had also informed her FBI handlers about goings on at New Left events from Berkeley to Washington. And she had tried to entice anti-nuclear activists on at least two occasions into committing illegal acts, presumably after being instructed to do so by the FBI.
In one such instance, Srouji took Frank Russo — co-founder of the Nashville chapter of the US-China Peoples Friendship Association — with her to the Air Force Systems Command's Arnold Engineering Development Center (AEDC) in Tullahoma. Surprisingly, the two were admitted to highly classified areas of the Air Force base. According to Russo’s friends, Srouji then tried to get Russo into photographing things that the AEDC had ordered them not to photograph. Srouji claimed she wanted those photos for an article she was writing for Nashville! magazine, but the article was never published.
And she had been informed about Silkwood’s sexual orientation by executives of Kerr-McGee who had been introduced to her by the FBI.
Stockton and Ward contacted the publisher of the Nashville Tennesseean, where Srouji had worked as a copy editor since 1975. John Siegenthaler agreed to testify before the subcommittee about Srouji’s relationship with the FBI on 20 May 1976.
On 4 May, a few days after testifying before the subcommittee, Srouji had told Siegenthaler the truth about her relationship with the FBI. She had even shown him two FBI LHMs once to prove her special relationship, he told Stockton. Additionally, she told him the FBI had asked her to spy on two colleagues at the Tennesseean. The LHMs were so sensitive that he told her to hire a lawyer and then fired her.
But the night before he was to testify, the Republicans on the subcommittee met and discussed the investigation. The next day, as subcommittee chair Dingell began proceedings, the Republicans voiced vehement protest against what they felt was a lack of focus on behalf of the investigation. Dingell declined their demands, and Siegenthaler testified about the depth of Srouji’s relationship with the FBI. For that, the FBI smeared him, Dingell, and Stockton.
Peter Stockton was accused by the FBI in a report included in the Silkwood papers of spending most of his time visiting prostitutes. Two agents of the FBI fed the New York Times the rumour that Siegenthaler had had sexual relations with young girls. Siegenthaler fought the accusations for years and finally got an apology from the DOJ. The FBI once again relied on a prostitute to frame Dingell, getting her to claim that he was a client. Dingell shrugged off the clumsy attempt and got re-elected in 1976.
After returning to the house, Dingell mounted pressure on the DOJ and finally got his investigators access to over 1,000 pages of FBI interviews in the Silkwood case. They found no additional facts, suggesting that the FBI had more documents that it was keeping from them. The only other conclusion was that the investigation had been utterly shoddy. But in December, the house passed a rule that no member could chair two subcommittees. Dingell was forced to give up the Energy & Environment subcommittee which had been investigating.
After his departure, the Silkwood investigation died a quiet death in congress.
Concludes in Part Three.
Have you read my spy novels? The Let Bhutto Eat Grass series sees a motley crew of spies try to halt nuclear weapons espionage during the Cold War.
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