Leakers in Peril

07.02.13

Edward Snowden’s Whistleblowing Saga Mirrors the Karen Silkwood Case

The government’s campaign to smear the late anti-nuke activist could be a blueprint for its efforts to discredit whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The U.S. government will stop at nothing to prevent whistleblowers from revealing official secrets. Edward Snowden, who exposed the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs in June, is the most recent example. But such crackdowns are nothing new. Remember Karen Silkwood?

Both Snowden and Silkwood, who was killed in a 1974 car crash, worked for U.S. government contractors privy to classified information. Snowden was employed by NSA contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Silkwood worked for the Kerr-McGee Corp., a contractor for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Neither Snowden, 29, nor Silkwood, 28, had completed college. Both held low-level positions. Snowden was a systems analyst. Silkwood was a laboratory technician. Both had access to classified documents. Snowden discovered that the NSA was spying on Americans. Silkwood discovered that Kerr-McGee was allegedly manufacturing defective fuel rods filled with plutonium pellets and that 40 pounds of plutonium were missing from the company’s inventory. The amounts of “material unaccounted for” were classified by the AEC.

Both Snowden and Silkwood felt that Americans had the right to know what their government was hiding from them. In both cases, their motives have been called into question. Was Snowden a traitor posing as a hero? Was he working with China or Russia? Did Silkwood blow the whistle out of revenge? Was she trying to win contract concessions for her union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers?

Both Snowden and Silkwood broke the law. Snowden violated the Espionage Act of 1917, first by stealing classified government documents, then by making them public. If Silkwood possessed the documents she said she had, she violated AEC regulations by stealing classified or protected nuclear documents.

Snowden understood that he was breaking the law and sought to protect himself by fleeing the country. Whether he was working alone is still under investigation. It’s not clear whether Silkwood knew she could be prosecuted if she gave AEC documents to a newspaper. She was working with and guided by her union.

Snowden knew he was in danger. On June 9, The Washington Post quoted him as saying that the U.S. intelligence community “will most certainly kill you” to prevent the exposure of its secrets. There are no indications that Silkwood was afraid she might be killed.

Although Snowden shared his classified documents with reporters, Silkwood never had the chance to deliver hers. She was driving to meet a reporter waiting in an Oklahoma City motel when she crashed into the concrete wing wall of a culvert.  

Both the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the FBI concluded that Silkwood fell asleep at the wheel of her car because she was abusing prescribed quaaludes. The physical evidence, however, suggests that she was awake and forced off the road. A fresh concave dent on the rear bumper indicated that another car had probably bumped her from behind. The steering wheel was bent forward, indicating that she was probably holding it tightly when the car hit the concrete wall. And the tire tread on the shoulder of the road showed that she was probably trying to gain control of the vehicle. 

If someone pushed Silkwood off the road, no one knows who did it. But why they might have done it is clear. If the government suspected that she had classified or protected documents in her car the night she was killed, it would have had enough probable cause to try and stop her and search her car.

Snowden knew he was in danger. There are no indications that Silkwood was afraid she might be killed.

There is one final parallel between Snowden and Silkwood. In each case, the Justice Department used a diversionary tactic to contain the damage and to distract the public from the truth. Snowden is charged as a traitor who betrayed his country and a criminal in search of a safe haven. Silkwood was tarred as a discontented employee who contaminated herself to embarrass the company she worked for. She was branded a druggie who fell asleep behind the wheel with an undigested quaalude in her stomach.

In the Silkwood case, the diversion worked, to a point. Only Silkwood’s three adult children still seem to care about what really happened to her on that November night. No one seems worried about 30 to 40 pounds of missing plutonium. But ultimately the government’s overreaction succeeded in turning Silkwood into a nuclear martyr glamorized in a movie starring Meryl Streep.

It looks as if the government is shooting itself in the foot once again.  In the minds of many around the world, Snowden is already a hero, and the Justice Department is about to turn him into another martyr.  I can see the movie now.