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One Conspiracy Theory That Just Might Be True
on October 17, 2003
I became interested in Karen Silkwood after watching the 1983 movie "Silkwood". The film seemed to suggest that Silkwood was murdered, but a number of reviews I subsequently read dismissed "Silkwood" as an irresponsible docudrama that was based on sensationalism rather than fact.
After reading Richard Rashke's "The Killing of Karen Silkwood", I'd have to say that the film didn't take its allegations far enough. Based on thousands of pages of court documents, including depositions, sworn statements, internal memos, and federal records, Rashke makes a convincing case for the following:
Silkwood was deliberately contaminated with plutonium by someone at Kerr-McGee, perhaps on several occasions. Had she lived, Silkwood had a good likelihood of developing cancer because of the significant exposure she experienced.
Silkwood was most likely carrying important documents the night she was murdered; among other things, she had proof that 42.5 pounds of plutonium was missing from K-M's Cimarron plant, which is enough to make three or four nuclear bombs.
Security at the Cimarron plant was dangerously lax, as were safety measures. Workers received little education in regards to nuclear energy or the safety risks that accompany it, and consequently contamination was not taken seriously by employees.
Union members' (and particularly Karen Silkwood's) rights were repeatedly violated by K-M officials, who continually interfered in union activities and even began to spy on Silkwood.
However, the conspiracy surrounding Silkwood's death became even more heinous and inconceivable as Silkwood's side investigated in preparation for trial. Though the truth will probably never be known, Rashke lays out a compelling - though sketchy - account, involving the FBI, the CIA, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Justice Department, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and a shadowy network of Iranians, Russians, and Israelis. Rashke hints at an international plutonium smuggling ring, and supplies evidence that the FBI was responsible for illegally and covertly spying on a number of organizations as late as the mid-1970s, including various labor unions and their members - and Silkwood was one of their targets.
Rashke's story might sound unbelievable, but most of it is based on public court documents. His interviews with the assorted players in the case may be less trustworthy; yet, many statements are corroborated by court papers. Also lending credence to the Silkwood camp's version of the story is the fact that several significant witnesses died, disappeared, or were threatened during the investigation and ensuing court case. Additionally, the Silkwood lawyers and investigator received death threats and were followed and even assaulted - one must wonder why, if the Silkwood case was wholly without merit. Especially appalling is the federal government's role in the affair, and their failure to cooperate with the civil case.
"Who Killed Karen Silkwood" reads like a novel - it's a compelling book that's hard to put down. Indeed, I expect that I won't soon be able to forget about Silkwood's story and its larger implications. I'm far from what you'd call a conspiracy nut (though I love the X-Files, I identify with Scully as opposed to Mulder!) - yet, the evidence in this case is as convincing as it is frightening. The final two pages will simply blow you away.
My only gripe - Rashke's update to the 2nd edition of the book (released to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Silkwood's death) was sorely lacking. He made no mention of what's become of those involved in the case; of any information, either directly or indirectly related to the case, that's been discovered since the end of the investigation; or of the movie, which was a critical and box-office success. Rashke coins the newest section "The Legacy", but he doesn't discuss Silkwood's legacy even briefly. The new chapters focus on the court battles since May 1979 and K-M's troubles with and termination of their nuclear program, but speak little of Silkwood.