Crime Fighter’s Dilemma: My Country or My Family?

By Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project.

“We were required… to report fraud, waste, abuse and corruption to the appropriate authority. The big word there is appropriate. If I tell you there’s a problem here and you blow me off, you’re no longer appropriate. I did that up to and including the President’s Office…until finally, through the US Congress and the Inspector General’s office, we took the issues to the American People. And by golly, the American People are the appropriate authority," insists Fred Whitehurst.

One hopes aberrations in the USA’s judicial process are due to honest accidents. The alternative—systemic corruption—seems almost paranoid. No wonder whistleblowers are routinely slandered as being mentally unstable (stellar accomplishments notwithstanding). Even the trailblazing Fred Whitehurst was characterized as being crazy.

Who is Fred Whitehurst? His actions speak for themselves. At the age of seventeen, Whitehurst jumped in a lake to save a man from drowning. As a grunt, he lectured a high-ranking officer in protest of Marines who attacked a Vietnamese child. Four bronze stars later, he earned a chemistry doctorate and joined the FBI. And because Whitehurst took his FBI oath seriously, he wallop-slapped crime lab protocols into the 21st Century.

As the FBI’s new explosives scientist, Whitehurst noted the lab was grimy, and contaminated surfaces make forensics impossible. He spent his weekends and holidays cleaning the facilities and attending to equipment modernization. The lack of adequate science protocol compelled him to write letter upon letter to multiple authorities, putting his livelihood —and some thought, his life—at risk.

Before Whitehurst’s tenure, the FBI bomb lab was run by officers who were not forensic scientists, but seasoned detectives. These agents were trained to solve cases, not test hypotheses. Eventually, the FBI did implement Whitehurst’s suggestions, but simultaneously torpedoed Whitehurst’s career. He returned to his roots: Bethel, North Carolina, a small town where Whitehurst’s ancestors became landowners in 1760.

An innocent person condemned by law is perhaps the most horrifying thing a civilized society can acknowledge. Such travesty haunts the collective imagination, reflecting myth, history and politics. Fred Whitehurst implemented changes in the FBI that make the condemnation of innocents less likely than ever before, but he wound up being condemned himself. Perhaps his forbearers, who settled Bethel during an era of revolutionary upheaval, could imagine their descendant having to choose between loyalty to state and loyalty to family. Perhaps they hoped their sacrifices meant he wouldn’t have to choose, but it seems every generation must.