Exclusive: Did the FBI spy on its own whistle-blower?

As crime lab scandal grows, fired bomb expert says he has been burgled and wiretapped

Published January 31, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

The FBI bomb expert who accused senior officials at the agency's crime laboratory of slanting or contaminating evidence in more than 1,000 cases says that his home has been wiretapped and burgled, according to sources close to an internal probe.

Dr. Frederic Whitehurst, who was stripped of his badge and escorted from the bureau's Washington headquarters last Friday, has complained to close colleagues that unknown intruders rifled his home files and installed hidden wiretaps in recent months, these sources say.

"Unfortunately, we are not able to confirm or deny that," said FBI spokeswoman Angela Bell, responding to Salon's request for comment on Friday.

Whitehurst has previously charged that the Materials Analysis Unit, based in the FBI's Washington headquarters, has mishandled evidence in several major cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber case. The FBI has not commented on those charges, but three senior lab officials, whom Whitehurst has repeatedly accused of incompetence and slanting evidence, were transferred from the lab last week.

In addition, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times have reported that other crime lab officials have told the Justice Department about alleged mishandling of evidence in high-profile federal cases, including the Oklahoma City bombing case.

"We do believe that this is a serious set of problems," Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jamie Gorelick said Thursday.

In the latest twist, according to sources, Whitehurst complained that "persons unknown" entered his house in the Maryland suburbs on at least two occasions last fall and rifled his files. Whitehurst said nothing was stolen, but sources say that he believes that the FBI installed hidden listening devices in the house and wiretapped his telephone.

Whitehurst did not make a formal complaint with local police, say these sources, although he has previously accused the FBI, in court documents, of "harassment and intimidation."

The FBI has given no public reasons for suspending the whistle-blower, but law enforcement sources and media reports say he is under a criminal probe for allegedly leaking documents about the lab to Playboy magazine in 1995.

Whitehurst's complaints about the FBI lab are also detailed in more than 125 memos and sworn statements he has given to the Inspector General of the Justice Department. If true, the allegations could prompt appeals in more than 1,000 federal convictions, according to internal Justice Department documents.

As Salon first reported last April, an internal review of lab data in 13 bombings attributed to accused Unabomber Theodore Kacyznski found that evidence was either "incomplete or missing." Whitehurst has also charged that senior lab officials slanted reports in the World Trade Center bombing investigation and in the Oklahoma City bombing case.

Steve Jones, the attorney for accused Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, took a sworn deposition from Whitehurst in December and plans to call him to testify that evidence was contaminated during the FBI investigation. Meanwhile, the government has withdrawn the planned testimony of three senior FBI lab officials in the case. Roger Martz, David Williams and Tom Thurmond, whom Whitehurst accused of mishandling evidence in the investigation, were transferred from the lab last week.

Salon has also learned that Whitehurst complained to the Justice Department's Inspector General in 1995 that a federal prosecutor urged him to suppress lab findings helpful to the defense in a major terrorism case.

The case involved the bombing of an Avianca airliner that exploded over Bogota, Colombia, in 1989, killing 107 people, including two Americans. A reputed hit man for the Colombia cocaine cartel, Dandeny Munoz-Mosquera, was arrested in Queens in 1994 and charged with murder, but the first prosecution ended in a mistrial.

As the government prepared to retry Munoz-Mosquera, Whitehurst, the lab's top bomb residues specialist, was asked to review the evidence. He filed a report disagreeing with the findings of other FBI analysts. His report was approved by his superiors and forwarded to federal prosecutors Beth Wilkinson and Cheryl Pollak in New York.

On June 14, 1994, according to a memo Whitehurst later filed with the Inspector General, Pollak called him on the telephone to complain he had put his dissent on paper.

"She said that my report directly contradicted [FBI] statements ... made earlier in court, and that now I would probably be called by the defense as an expert and the government would be embarrassed because the government's own experts could not agree."

Whitehurst, who was attending Georgetown Law School at the time, says he took that to mean Pollak was angry that lawyers for Munoz-Mosquera would now have to be given the exculpatory evidence, thus potentially damaging the government's case. Sarcastically, Whitehurst wrote, "I thought that if the material was known by the government, it had to be revealed if it was relevant. Does (Pollak's complaint) mean we can hide stuff from the defense that is exculpatory unless we have it written on paper?"

Munoz-Mosquera was convicted and sentenced to 10 consecutive life sentences in May 1995.

Pollak, now a federal magistrate in New York, responded in a telephone interview that Whitehurst "might have blown the whole thing way out of proportion."

"It really didn't matter how the plane was bombed," Pollak added. "The only issue was whether Munoz-Mosquera was involved ... The evidence that tied him to the plane was the 25 witnesses who said he did it. There were a half-dozen witnesses who tied him to it ... That was the critical evidence, not the bomb."

The Inspector General's investigation, meanwhile, is looking beyond problems in the bomb lab to allegations of wrongdoing by FBI blood experts, paint experts and polygraph examiners. The Inspector General is expected to make several recommendations to upgrade the operations of the lab -- some of which the FBI has already instituted.

Brother, can you spare 100 million dimes?

Microcredit -- giving tiny loans to the world's poorest people -- may revolutionize international aid. It might even eradicate world poverty.


When Hillary Rodham Clinton held her first policy press conference in two years Thursday, the subject she wanted to talk about was "micro-enterprise" -- giving very small loans to start businesses in the U.S. and abroad.

The first lady's enthusiastic speech marked yet another high point in the remarkable rise of an idea that started two decades ago in a village in one of the world's poorest countries.

Around the time that "Concert for Bangladesh" became a hit record, a man named Muhammad Yunus was teaching economics in that famine-stricken country's Chittagong University. One day he wandered into the neighboring village to see how the world outside the university worked.

It was quite a lesson, one that has spawned -- two decades later -- a multibillion-dollar poverty program in 56 countries. This weekend, it's the subject of an international summit in Washington, with international development and banking officials looking to transform Yunus' concept into a cohesive global effort.

Yunus remembers the first villager he met that day in 1976. She earned two pennies a day carving bamboo stools. "I just couldn't figure out why she earned so little," recalls the slightly built, bespectacled Bangladeshi. "It turned out she didn't have enough money to buy the bamboo. So she had to borrow the money. And the man who lent the money demanded she sell the stools to him -- at the price he demanded!"

Shocked and angry, Yunus went around the village seeing how many others there were like her. He drew up a list of 42 people whom he calculated needed a total of just $27 to begin earning a modest living. He asked the local bank manager to lend them the money, "but he almost fell from the sky." So Yunus loaned the money himself. Within weeks, the villagers had paid him back. "It was a shock. Here we were, talking about the billions and billions of dollars it would take to solve Bangladesh's economic problems. And this was so cheap and easy."

Cheap and easy is largely why Yunus' approach -- dubbed "microcredit" -- has become the favorite anti-poverty model for private aid organizations, the United Nations and the World Bank. At a time when Western governments are shying away from tackling the Third World's economic problems, Yunus' Grameen Bank has provided hope -- and concrete improvements -- for some of the world's poor.

Since 1977, Grameen Bank has gone into about 36,000 villages in Bangladesh, lending nearly $2 billion to about 1.2 million very poor people. More than 90 percent of the borrowers are women, many of whom had never before handled money, and would never dream of walking into any commercial bank. Interest rates run up to 20 percent, but that is far less than other banks and village money-lenders charge. Yunus estimates that 98 percent of borrowers have paid Grameen Bank back in full.

Spurred by Yunus' success, similar programs have been established throughout Asia, Africa and South America, reaching 8 million people. At a four-day "Microcredit Summit" beginning Saturday -- partly sponsored by some of Grameen's more curious new fans, including Citicorp and Mastercard -- aid experts, including officials from the World Bank, will try to figure out how to raise $21.6 billion and lend it to 100 million of the world's poorest people by the year 2005. The World Bank has called on governments to fund $200 million in microcredit programs, although summit documents estimate that government donors will probably need to cover at least $6 billion of the total cost.

Yunus says his model can be applied anywhere. But who will qualify for the massive new injection of loans is likely to be a thorny issue at the summit. Hard as it is to believe, Yunus says it's no easy matter spotting the "real poor" -- even in Bangladesh, one of the world's poorest countries. How much harder could it be in Europe and the United States, where the summit envisions up to 4 million new borrowers?

"I train my staff to go into a village and ask who needs money," Yunus says. "Then I tell them, the ones who tell you they are poor, are for sure not poor. No real poor person will come tell you they are poor, because they don't imagine anything good will happen to them. They cannot imagine anyone will lend them money."

So Grameen's staff poke their heads into crumbling huts, interview market women and finally identify those who are most likely to do something productive with $20 or so. The borrowers need no credit history, no obvious talent for business, not even the ability to sign their names. Instead, Grameen's extraordinary success is based largely on a system of peer pressure, where, instead of collateral, friends and neighbors join in groups of borrowers and vouch for each other. Allah help those who fall behind on their payments!

Grameen experiments have proliferated in recent years, inspired by fairy-tale stories of the Sri Lankan who launched her candy factory with $100 and the Dominican who borrowed $80 and now runs her own ceramics business. In India, Nigeria, China, Vietnam, even rural Arkansas, microcredit programs have become the rage among development economists who are desperate for workable solutions in an age of rampant privatization and shrinking government aid. Hillary Clinton, who is scheduled to address the conference on Monday, has praised the programs in Chile and Bangladesh.

But microcredit doesn't come cheap. Much of the $21.6 billion needed will have to come from Western governments whose aid budgets are constantly under pressure. Added to that are the difficulties in setting up such an ambitious credit program in so short a time, particularly in places where monitoring is shaky and leadership weak. And while 100 million people might seem like a lot, what is to be done for the remaining 1.2 billion people the U.N. estimates live on a dollar a day or less?

Yunus, his soft face breaking into a big smile, refuses to be swayed by the doubts. "Grameen makes a good profit," he says. The bank has reported small profits in five out of seven years between 1989 and 1995. But it has also received donations from international agencies and has expanded into as yet unprofitable businesses like solar energy and cellular telephones.

Still, says Yunus, "If it can help eradicate poverty, we can dream of creating a poverty-free world -- very soon."

Vivienne Walt is a columnist for the interactive edition of The Wall Street Journal

Quote of the day

The joke's on us

"The humor I see on television and in the clubs today is the humor of the narcissist. The humor is of trivia, of people engaged in lives of little substance and less social significance."

-- Joseph Dorinson, a student of humor and professor of history at Long Island University. (From "Horse Goes Into a Bar; Bartender Says, 'Hey, Why the Long Face?': If You Got That Punch Line, It May Say Something About Humor in America," in Friday's Wall Street Journal).

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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