Whistleblower Number One

A Q&A with Fred Whitehurst, the first FBI whistleblower to go public

(For Whitehurst's bio, see "FBI Whistleblowers: A Short List")

 

City Pages: When did you begin voicing criticisms of the way things were done, and at what point did FBI management begin to retaliate against you?

Frederic Whitehurst: When I went to the field, I saw things like voucher fraud and banging the books--which means time and attendance fraud--and some of us were bitterly disappointed about that. But we rationalized that we were fighting a bigger enemy and every [organization] has fraud.

I'm a professional scientist. I've got a doctorate in chemistry. And when I got to the lab, I realized that the place was a pigsty. That was in June of 1986, and I started talking to some of my colleagues. I asked questions of people right above me, the next level. I just about wasn't allowed to be qualified as an examiner in the lab, not because I wasn't technically qualified, but because, as they said, of all the damned ethics questions I was asking.

I guess it was 1989 when I was faced with put up or shut up. I was at a trial out in San Francisco when a colleague of mine was not being up-front. I said the heck with it, nobody's ever listened to me before, I'll just tell the defense experts. That caused a big uproar and I ended up suspended from duty for a week and on probation for six months and docked a week's pay. I felt that the work product of this fellow was bad, and I wanted it reviewed. I went back to headquarters and said so.

I found out one day that another colleague had been altering my reports for five years without my knowledge or authorization. I went forward with that. I'm a Ph.D.-level chemist; he was a guy with a degree in political science. Most of the reports he altered were altered significantly. When I tried to get him to stop, it didn't matter to him. When I talked to management, one of my managers said, Wait a minute, there doesn't need to be a big fight about it.

[During the investigation of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing], I began to see my reports were being altered by more than one person, people were rendering opinions in courts of law that they weren't qualified to render, we weren't following protocols--the list just expanded. I went to each level of my management. I wasn't a bad guy about it. I said, here's an issue I've got. And I went through those levels for four, five, six months, and invariably someone would say, Yes, there's an issue, Fred. But get back to work.

I was a law enforcement officer watching civil rights violations. I found that to be inappropriate. I carried my complaints then from one level of management to the next, until I got to the president, the Senate Judiciary Committee, the director of the FBI. But if you tell somebody something's wrong and he doesn't do anything about it, and six months later you go to his boss and say, this guy hasn't done anything, you start to get some animosity directed toward you.

It sort of built to a crescendo. I hired counsel in 1993 and began interaction with top management of the FBI trying to get something to happen. And their response was to try and destroy me. That went on until '97, when the Inspector General [issued a report that] said, Fred Whitehurst lacks common sense and good judgment. However, he is right on some of these major issues. The day that the report came out, or within a couple of days, I was put on administrative leave. We won in mediation. I won my salary and my retirement at a GS14 level, but I agreed to retire early. The government also agreed to pay the rest of my bills. I spent $124,000 on legal bills. They dropped the third criminal investigation they had thrown against me. And I retired.

If you win, if you're right, they tell you to go away. It's a good old boy network, and everybody's covering for everybody.

CP:What sorts of things did they do to push you out? Jane Turner says that practically every critic who's come along has been subjected to a Fitness For Duty psychiatric evaluation.

Whitehurst: When they sent me to the shrink [for an FFD evaluation] and said I had no choice, I knew I'd better get counsel, because it was going to get dirty. That was 1993. They also do what a colleague of mine referred to as internal marketing. The good old boy network will start passing the word. I walked into a restaurant during the [1993] World Trade Center bombing investigation and overheard one guy explaining to another that I had lost my mind. There was some concern management had about my mental stability. Also, I had a window office, and pretty soon I'm sitting in the closet of a closet and the meaningful cases are being taken away from me. My employees can tell me to kiss their ass, and if I grade them down, management says, No, no, no, you've got to work with them, Fred.

Whatever you do, wherever you turn, there's something you've done wrong. Travel, holding classes--they stuck a trainee at my desk and moved me to the other side of the building. Foolish little stuff. It gets to be sharks after shark bait. The shrink, opening OPR investigations against you--it's all there simply as a good old boy thing to quell dissension.

If someone launches an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint at the FBI, that's the end of their career. Bam, they're gone. They'll never get anywhere. If they speak up and have issues about management problems at the FBI, if they don't go along with the groupthink in a case--there's so many things. It's like walking on thin ice.

CP:Why hadn't any FBI whistleblowers emerged before you did in the late '90s?

Whitehurst:Because people are terrified. They're absolutely terrified. There's a culture of fear. Coleen Rowley spoke of it. But actually those were Jane Turner's original words. As I wrote to the Inspector General, I'm working with the bravest people I've ever worked with, and they're absolutely terrified out of their wits. Absolute terror. That [FBI HQ] building is close, uptight--it's like something out of an old movie about the Soviet Union. Everybody's terrified to breathe in and out if they aren't breathing in and out at the same time as the old man.

Everybody right now is covering, covering, covering.

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