Matt Damon's portrayal of doughy, kvetchy Mark Whitacre in the new dark comedy "The Informant," directed by Steven Soderbergh and produced by George Clooney, is a reminder that real-life whistle-blowers strike a unique profile in courage.
Whether uncovering fraud in corporate America, as Damon's character does in the new film, or in government, as former FBI agent Coleen Rowley tried to do in the weeks before Sept. 11, whistle-blowers may ultimately be heroes, but they are also frequent targets for retaliation.
"The Informant," which opens Friday, is based on a true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistle-blower in U.S. history, Mark Whitacre, who exposed price fixing at Archer Daniels Midland. For nearly three years, he worked as an FBI informant, helping to uncover a worldwide scheme to fix prices of the feed additive lysine. Wearing a wire, Whitacre recorded high-level executives as well as ADM's competitors to reveal a conspiracy.
But often, the attempts to be a whistle-blower don't work -- at least not in time.
Seven years ago, Rowley, a former FBI special agent who was the chief division council in the Minneapolis Office, wrote a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, detailing mistakes the bureau had made leading up to Sept. 11, specifically not allowing the field office to fully investigate al Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, who now is indicted as a 9/11 co-conspirator.
"What she did in terms of coming forward on the problems with the failure to report the events of 9/11 was just absolutely incredible," said David Colapinto, general counsel for the National Whisteblowers Center in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit advocacy organization that seeks to educate and protect the rights of whistle-blowers. "Our government has still not come to terms with the lessons of 9/11 which she was responsible for really shining the light on in terms of the lack of communication between agencies in the executive branch, law enforcement, intelligence, etc."
Rowley credits her position "outside of the power group," but with close "access" to events, as what enabled her to identify misconduct at the agency.
"You're not supposed to do what I did. This chain of command in the government, where if you get a 'no' answer from the next person above you, you aren't supposed to go around that person and call someone at a higher level," said Rowley, who said she was brushed off by her field office in Minnesota. "When I went home on 9/11, I said, 'You know what?' After seeing this and seeing what happened here, and seeing how the agents got stonewalled, I said, 'I can't live with myself,' and I called our command post and talked to headquarters."
Rowley talked to headquarters just one day after the tragic events in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. After being put on hold, she was told the situation was no longer an emergency. Unsatisfied with the response, Rowley continued to move further up the chain of command, ultimately writing a letter to the FBI director.
Now retired from the FBI, Rowley describes herself as "a civil liberties and peace and social justice activist." Rowley lobbies for the National Whistleblowers Center, adding, "I stand on corners holding signs."
Rowley said problems continue to snowball within the agency, and she's seen little change since her memo seven years ago.