Frederic Whitehurst had what it takes to change the FBI forever. A highly decorated three tour veteran of the Vietnam War, the youngest recipient of the Navy Medal for Heroism, a Ph.D. From Duke University in Chemistry, along with a Post Doc. Degree from Texas A&M. He advanced quickly up the ranks of the FBI and soon became a Supervisory Special Agent and the FBI’s top explosive expert. By the time his whistleblowing was done, he had forced the FBI to accredit its laboratory and obtained outside oversight of the FBI for the first time in history. His whistleblower case forced President Clinton to issue a directive granting whistleblower rights to every FBI agent. Whitehurst obtained a record-breaking $1.4 million settlement with the government.
Supervisory Special Agent Frederic Whitehurst was the FBI’s leading expert on explosives. In 1993, terrorists tried to take down the World Trade Center and set off a bomb in the building’s garage. Whitehurst was sent to the crime scene in New York and was responsible for securing the crime scene. His work trying to solve the crime soon took a turn for the worst when he realized that FBI officials were manipulating the forensic evidence and trying to use fraudulent science to convict the suspects. Whitehurst took unprecedented steps in trying to prevent fraud at the trial, which could have threatened the entire prosecution.
Whitehurst hired the attorneys at Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto to help him blow the whistle. However, because he had the highest possible security clearances, and because he was involved in the most sensitive terrorist case of the decade, the Attorney General tried to block him from even talking to his counsel and threatened him with prosecution if he revealed anything outside of the narrow confines of the FBI or DOJ.
Boxed in, Whitehurst made a bold move. He wrote two memos outlining the forensic misconduct that was undermining the integrity of the prosecution of the World Trade Center suspected terrorists. He gave these memos to agents from the Justice Department. They were eventually sent up the chain of command and landed on the desk of the Judge hearing the World Trade Center bombing case. The Judge immediately recognized that these memos contained what is known as Brady information, i.e., information that could impact whether or not a defendant could be found guilty. The Judge ordered the FBI to make Whitehurst available to questioning by the attorneys for the defendants.
There was one catch. Whitehurst would not testify unless his right to be represented by counsel was protected. The FBI was forced to rescind the restrictions on Whitehurst’s ability to communicate with his attorneys. History changed. Once his counsel lawfully learned the full scope of the forensic misconduct ongoing at the FBI, they were able to file lawsuits on his behalf and present his case internally to the government oversight offices. The result was ugly. The Documentary proof was offered that the FBI lied in a proceeding designed to impeach an African-American Judge, thousands of cases were called into question because of frauds committed by examiners, and misconduct was documented in other high-profile cases, including the Oklahoma City Bombing case and the O.J Simpson murder trial.
The pressure on the FBI to reform was intense. The Bureau was compelled to permit Whitehurst to speak on-air to the major ABC-TV investigative program, Prime Time Live, where he recounted many of his concerns. As a result, the Attorney General appointed a special blue ribbon panel to review the Crime Lab. The results fully vindicated Whitehurst. The DOJ Inspector General concluded that 13 FBI Lab examiners had engaged in misconduct, and some were removed from the laboratory. Old cases were ordered to be reexamined, and over fifty reforms were suggested, including the accreditation of the crime lab. The FBI agreed to implement every reform.
Whitehurst was not done. His court case forced President William Clinton to issue an order directing the Attorney General to establish whistleblower protections for all FBI employees. See Memorandum of President William Jefferson Clinton, Vol. 62 Federal Register No. 81, p. 23123 (April 14, 1997). Additionally, the investigation into the laboratory by the DOJ Inspector General was unprecedented and resulted in an agreement that the DOJ IG would have permanent oversight responsibility over the FBI. This reform has had the greatest long-term impact on improving the integrity of the FBI.
In 1998, the FBI and DOJ agreed to settle Dr. Whitehurst’s whistleblower retaliation claims, cleared his record, restored all of his rights, and paid him a record-breaking settlement of $1.42 million an amount unheard of for any federal employee, least of all an FBI agent.
Settlement in hand, Dr. Whitehurst voluntarily retired from the FBI and set up as an attorney in Bethel, North Carolina. While practicing law in his hometown, he joined the Board of Directors of the National Whistleblower Center and continued to review FBI case files in order to identify people hurt by the crime lab’s misconduct. His efforts have paid off, with thousands of cases being reviewed by him and Justice Department reviewers. Innocent people have been freed from prison and death sentences have been stayed.
Although working as an agent was his first love, Dr. Whitehurst never regretted becoming a whistleblower. In his own words: “I took an oath of office, and whoever was breaking the law, whoever was committing civil rights violations or human rights violations, I was supposed to do something about it. Yes, absolutely, I’d do it all over again… there have been amazing changes in the FBI laboratory…they are light years ahead of where they were.”
In the summer of 2001, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled, “Oversight: Restoring Confidence in the FBI.” At that hearing, former DOJ Inspector General Michael Bromwich stated, “Dr. Whitehurst was the principal source of allegations for our FBI Lab investigation, and it is true that in retrospect I think we were perceived as being too critical of him rather than commending him sufficiently for the service he performed … and there is no doubt that but for his persistence in bringing the allegations again and again and again over a long period of time within the FBI and finally to the IG’s office that the reforms that have subsequently been made in the FBI Lab would not have been made, and he deserves credit for that.”
America’s first successful FBI whistleblower, Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, changed the U.S. criminal justice system forever.