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She 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," Coleen Rowley, the FBI's most outspoken special agent, told the Voicetwo days before testifying for the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm just trying to get back," she added, "back to the way it was."
That's a long way from where she is now, a long way from the fitful nights in May when she typed that 13-page memo to the chief at headquarters and transformed herself, virtually overnight, into America's most courageous counterterrorism superhero, "Cassandra" Rowley, whistle-blower extraordinairethe 20-year veteran who blasted her bosses as "careerists" and claimed her beloved 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," she said, in her Fargo-sweet accent. "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. Martyrdom. Public interest. Betrayal. The stakes could not be higher, nor the poorly dressed 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? 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 will 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 relocationone 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 then became a whistle-blower himself, reporting the shameful practice to Congress, and now helps whistle-blowers recover on a farm in West Virginia. He calls it 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, runs a forensic watchdog group, and drives a stripped-down Ford truck with crank-up windows.
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 spooky, X-Filesallegations. Evaluationswhich can stretch over several days and cost over $10,000are 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."