The Secret War on FBI Whistle-blowers
Coleen Rowley didn't want to talk. She hadn't answered the phone in weeks. Picking it up this time was a fluke. "I'm just trying to focus on my work," the FBI's outspoken special agent said two days before testifying for the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm just trying to get back to the way it was."
That's a long way from where she is now, a long way from the nights in May when she typed that 13-page memo to the chief at headquarters and transformed herself, virtually overnight, into a sort of counterterrorism superhero -- "Cassandra" Rowley, a 20-year FBI veteran who blasted her bosses as "careerists" and claimed the agency "circled the wagons" to cover up a score of pre-9-11 intelligence blunders.
"It wasn't my intention to get the media involved," Rowley says. "Gosh, now it's a little like . . . whoa! . . . It's pretty way out there."
Was she worried about retaliation? Losing her job? Public smears?
She had to leave for Washington. She didn't want to say.
Enter the patriotic tattletale, star of America's most thrilling political drama. The stakes could not be higher, nor the characters and overwrought plot more ripe for prime time. It's Must-See Reality TV.
But a story like Rowley's often ends years later with a subtle game of bureaucratic payback, a bitter finale the public rarely gets to witness.
Rowley has been promised protection. Some think her mass exposure will provide her with a shield of immunity. So far, the Minneapolis field office reports that no investigations into her situation exist, and at the word of FBI director Robert Mueller, there will be none in the future.
Public promises, counter a chorus of former whistle-blowers, only last so long. "It's great TV for now," says Notra Trulock, former director of intelligence for the Department of Energy, "but she has no idea what's she's gotten herself into."
The first stop on the whistle-blower's roller coaster to ruin is discreditation. That's what happened to Trulock, who was accused of racial bias when he blew the whistle on the bungled investigation into Wen Ho Lee, a scientist accused of spying for China.
"Anonymous news leaks always come first," he says. Fellow agents may peek into Rowley's personnel file, quiz her colleagues about her habits, and find something to feed the press, and already rumors are being whispered on the Hill. The gossip: Rowley once punished a whistle-blower herself.
Next, say those who've taken the ride, comes a gamut of retaliatory tactics: harassment from supervisors, the loss of office allies, a stripping of security clearance, the monitoring of activities, inter-office relocation -- one Department of Agriculture informer was moved to a desk in the hallway outside the bathroom -- demotions, psychiatric or medical referrals, or "administrative leave," to put it euphemistically.
"The FBI never fires whistle-blowers, directly," says psychiatric social worker Don Soeken.
In the late '70s, Soeken worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, and his job was to perform "fitness for duty" examinations for federal employees whose supervisors thought they were mentally unstable. But Soeken noticed something curious about his clientele. All his patients seemed to be whistle-blowers, Soeken says, and he was asked to label the muckrakers mentally unfit, giving the government the green light to dismiss them. Soeken refused. He became a whistle-blower himself, reporting the shameful practice to Congress, and now helps whistle-blowers recover on a farm in West Virginia that he calls the Whistlestop.
"There's only one commandment in the FBI," says one of his patients, Fred Whitehurst. "Thou shall not say anything bad about the FBI." Whitehurst used to be the FBI's chief forensic scientist for explosives analysis; he examined the powders left on the rubble from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. For over a decade, he watched other lab scientists fudging reports to make quick criminal convictions. He howled. Now he lives in the backwoods of North Carolina and runs a forensic watchdog group.
Like Rowley, Whitehurst was praised in Congress for his courage. Senators promised him an award ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. What he got instead were demotions, a missing medical record, internal investigations, followed by psychological treatments. "The FBI will push you 'til you break," he says, "and you can never return from your day in the sun."
Like many other agents, he was flown to the Isaac Ray Center in Chicago to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation. For 27 years, Isaac Ray has enjoyed a contract to treat FBI personnel, and in addition to working on criminals and delinquents, they've also shrunk the heads of celebrity madmen like John F. Hinckley Jr.
"Vulgar rape" is how Whitehurst describes his experience there. "I was sentenced to a room for nine hours and wasn't even allowed to pee."
Isaac Ray denies the allegations. Evaluations -- which can last over several days and cost more than $10,000 -- are based on a comprehensive test featuring 565 yes-or-no questions, according to the center, and that test has not changed in 30 years. "People [like Whitehurst] who are 'normal' are going to have trouble if you give them enough stress over a long period of time," says center president Dr. James Cavanaugh. "But I can assure you nobody is being submitted to vulgarities or unusual procedures."
Whitehurst says he had no choice but to undergo the treatment, because if he refused, the bureau would fire him for insubordination.
"The strange thing is, Americans pray for patriotic individuals to save them from national disasters," Whitehurst says. "But when that someone comes along, they slice into your abdomen, pull 30 feet of gut out, stomp on it, and then what kind of hero are you? You're not. You've been branded as a loon. All you have to do in the FBI is step in the line of fire. You'll get blown away."
The same day Rowley left for Washington, a colleague of hers, Special Agent Robert Wright, was waiting a few hundred miles away in the FBI's Chicago field office. Wright was getting nervous. The producers from CNN's Crossfire had been calling; they wanted him to appear on their Thursday night show, with Carville and Novak, to coincide with the presumed lead story, Rowley's testimony. At the advice of his counsel, Wright agreed.
Wright's a whistle-blower, too -- sort of. He's a money guy, tracks the accounts of international terrorists, and like Rowley, he claims his investigation, code-named Vulgar Betrayal, was obstructed by the bureau. Like Rowley, he also has suggested 9-11 could have been prevented. But unlike her, he can't seem to find anyone in Washington who'll listen.
Bob Novak started the questioning: "Mr. Wright, your charges against the FBI are really more disturbing, more serious, than Ms. Rowley's. Why is it, do you think, that you have been ignored by the media, ignored by the congressional committees, and no attention has been paid to your allegations?"
Wright paused. "I don't know the true reasons for that."
Part of the problem started with him. He asked the FBI for permission to go public with his 500-page manuscript, which he says outlines the failures of the FBI's counterterrorism efforts. Muzzled by the Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, he sought help last summer from Judicial Watch, a Washington nonprofit famous for suing government to get documents and expose corruption. Judicial Watch is now suing the FBI for him. And his life is slowly going to hell.
Once on al-Qaeda's trail, Wright now works run-of-the-mill bank fraud cases. He's also been hit with two claims of harassment -- one sexual, one racial -- both deemed baseless by his lawyers. No one, it would seem, takes him seriously -- except Judicial Watch, which calls him another victim of the bureau's "culture of fear."
Hours before Coleen Rowley walked into the chambers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, her boss had promised the nation he would protect her. But nothing in the law requires him to. Federal whistle-blower statutes don't apply to FBI agents. Rather than being reviewed by a third party, their complaints are handled internally.
Shielded by nothing but her trust and the goodwill of her boss, Rowley sat alone before a hundred flashbulbs and told the world the FBI needs to change, quickly. She was polite, thorough, boring.
During the recess, the network pundits seemed disappointed with the performance. Sure, Rowley had fleshed out the details of her letter, they argued, but she wasn't naming names. She showed no outrage. She wasn't acting like a whistle-blower. She even commended Bob Mueller! She was positive about change! Hardly a renegade tone.
"Maybe the 'treatment' will be different for Rowley," says Soeken, "but I doubt it."
Geoffrey Gray is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, the Village Voice and City Limits. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.