Sept. 18, 2009 -- 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.
Profile of a Whistle-Blower
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 Qaedaoperative 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.
"I don't see that we've changed; we haven't corrected to take into account some of the knowledge that we've gotten," she said. "If you want to have a country do better, you've got to have a way of encouraging critical thinking, people who will speak the truth when they spot it."
Putting It All on the Line
Like others who have sought to expose misconduct, Mark Whitacre put his family and livelihood at risk when he cooperated with the FBI. However, in many ways, he does not fit the traditional definition of a whistle-blower.
"In terms of the Whitacre case itself, I thought that it was both entertaining and it was an interesting portrayal of that unique case -- but it should not be confused with what whistle-blowers face on a day-to-day basis," whistle-blower advocate Colapinto told ABC News. "It is not a landmark whistle-blower case in the classic sense."
While Whitacre's impact on political corruption and the food and agriculture industry cannot be underestimated, Colapinto pointed out most historic whistle-blowers were not also involved in criminal conduct. Whitacre was convicted for embezzling millions from ADM and, ultimately, served time in prison.
"You can look at Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers ... Jeffrey Wigand who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry. ... Then you've got Karen Silkwood, who blew the whistle in the nuclear industry ... and Colleen Rowley, who was on the cover of Time magazine, together with Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on Wall Street and Enron," he said. "All of these individuals in all of these cases have a single common element of people blowing the whistle on serious misconduct or illegal acts and risking their careers to do it."
Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said whistle-blowers make fascinating subjects to study because they're often figures who walk two sides of the line. In film, they take on both the identity of a protagonist and an antagonist.
"On one level, a whistle-blower is by definition someone who, by category, we don't like in the country, a tattletale," he said. "At the same time, since they're blowing the whistle against major corporate empires and, therefore, are underdogs, that's a category we do like in this culture.
"These whistle-blower movies get to play off that kind of clashing set of dramaturgical definitions, and that can really be interesting," he added.
Clashing definitions is one way to describe the farcical twist that ensues in the dark comedy when it becomes clear that Whitacre may not be as trustworthy as the audience was initially led to believe.
"It's a terrific role because he's a lot of things. He did things that were incredibly heroic and courageous and, at the same time, he wasn't completely forthright about everything that he was doing," Damon told Diane Sawyer this week on "Good Morning America."
Whitacre narrates the story with what amounts to a deluded and unreliable interior monologue, calling himself Agent 0014 for being twice as crafty as James Bond 007.
Damon, who is a fan of "The Insider," a film about tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, said he and director Soderbergh felt that movie already captured the tale of the whistle-blower in 1999, and they wanted to capture something different.
Once the focus of the film changed into a more subjective piece, Damon said he did not want to meet Whitacre in person because the film's underlying satirical quality made it less "appropriate to do a rigorous character study."
While "The Informant" is just a film, could it bring more awareness to the whistleblower cause? Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., is currently part of a bipartisan effort to pass a bill that will strengthen the existing protection for whistle-blowers.
"They put their jobs and careers at risk to protect the public interest, and we need to make sure, in the process, we protect them," Van Hollen told ABC News. "You don't want people to learn the wrong lesson. You want to make sure that whistle-blowers are protected. If they end up losing their jobs and not being protected, it has a chilling effect on other people's willingness to come forward."
Several congressional hearings have been held about the provisions in the proposed legislation and Van Hollen said that though the bill initially failed in the Senate, the Oversight and Government Reform Full Committee is poised to take action this fall.
"We attached the bill as an amendment to the stimulus bill, but it was dropped in the Senate. There were some objections. So now we are working to get the House bill passed," said the congressman. "I hope that within the next 30 to 40 days we can vote the bill out of committee."
The bill offers enhanced legal protection, working to supply all federal employees with access to federal courts and offering an avenue for defendants to see a jury as opposed to being limited to having an administrative board hear the case.
"We want to make sure that government employees have those protections and also we want to make sure that employees for private contractors who are working for the government get that protection," he said.
How Far Do We Have to Go?
Rowley, who said the FBI talked about firing her, maintained that the current measures in place to protect employees amount to "no whistle-blower protection whatsoever."
"I was a legal advisor for 13 years," said Rowley. "There's no whistle-blower protection whatsoever in the government, and I fell for it. There's been an effort for many years, I want to say beginning before 9/11, to get whistle-blower protection. Obama promised. It was part of his campaign pledge and it's never happened."
While Obama has not yet fulfilled his 2008 campaign promise to grant legal protection to all federal employee whistle-blowers, Van Hollen said the president supports advancing the legislation.
"The White House is supporting the effort, they're working with us to try and resolve some things," said the Maryland congressman. "But I can tell you that they've certainly been a lot more supportive than the previous administrations, and we're working with them to try and iron out some provisions in the bill."
The three-decade-plus mystery of the identity of Deep Throat -- ultimately revealed to be the former number two man at the FBI, Mark Felt -- speaks to the need for increased protection for whistle-blowers, said Colapinto.
"I think other whistle-blowers who have followed Deep Throat show that we need to emerge from the shadows of blowing the whistle to reporters in parking garages in secret and encouraging employees to be able to report major concerns, both in the private sector, corporate America and in the government through official channels without fear of retaliation," said the whistle-blower advocate.
Felt was a key source to Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their investigation of the Watergate scandal, ultimately leading to the downfall of President Richard Nixon in 1974. Felt's secret identity was not revealed until just a few years before his death.
"We've progressed somewhat from the days of Deep Throat," said Colapinto, "But we really have a long way to go in order to create a work culture that encourages whistle-blowing."