Don’t Kill the Messenger! © Donald Ray Soeken
A Showdown At The Courthouse
When the showdown finally came – in the summer of 1989 in San Francisco – it triggered a violent and protracted struggle that would convulse the entire Bureau, all the way up to the office of FBI Director Louis J. Freeh in Washington.
The battle between Fred Whitehurst and the FBI began in earnest during the trial of a businessman named Steven Psinakis, who had been charged with secretly gathering explosives for shipment to the Philippines, where they were allegedly going to be used in an assassination attempt against longtime Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. As was often the case, the U.S. Department of Justice was depending on evidence from the FBI explosives lab and one of longtime top analyst to deliver the key testimony that would convict the reported arms dealer.
But as the controversial trial got underway in the federal courthouse in the City by the Bay, Whitehurst was having some very painful second thoughts. “At that point, I knew from my own on-site inspections that the evidence that would be presenting in court was useless,” the disillusioned chemist would later tell me. “The lab was filthy dirty at that point, and the truth was that the agent had screwed up the analysis from top to bottom.
“This wasn’t just a situation where a few details were out of place. When I reviewed the lab notes and his top-to-bottom report on the case, my heart sank. Virtually everything he had put together was deeply flawed . . . and it was quickly apparent to me that we couldn’t proceed to trial with it.
“The evidence we were going to present to the jury was essentially meaningless – and when I examined my conscience, I saw that I just couldn’t be a party to the misrepresentation that was about to take place.”
Tormented by doubts and uncertainty, Whitehurst remembers “walking around San Francisco all day long. I was upset as hell,” he says today, “because I knew what would happen if we showed up in court with that kind of garbage. Would we help to convict an innocent man? What was my moral and ethical responsibility [in such a] complicated situation?”
At one point, Whitehurst remembers standing in front of a historical marker near Fisherman’s Wharf and reading a bronze plaque that described how hundreds of thousands of men had shipped out to fight in the Pacific during World War II from that very spot. “I was crying,” he recalls, “and the tears were just running down my face. And I kept asking myself over and over again: ‘Is this why they died – so that we could take the idea of justice and the rule of law . . . the idea of freedom for all from tyranny . . . just take those great American values and flush them down the commode?’”
“I decided . . . by God, I would not be part of it – no matter how much it cost me!”
In a flash, Whitehurst understood what had to be done. Retracing his steps to the courthouse, he marched inside and began looking for an expert chemist named Lloyd Snyder, the key “expert witness” for the defense team that was representing Steve Psinakis.
One can only imagine the shock and amazement Dr. Snyder must have felt, when Whitehurst rushed up to him with an urgent request: Could they talk together about the FBI lab report that was about to unveil in the courtroom?
Once the two men were alone together, Whitehurst blurted it all out. “Dr. Snyder . . . I know it may surprise you to hear this, but I’m convinced that my partner intends to lie on the stand. He’s going to testify that he found chemical evidence of explosives on the materials that were taken from the defendant’s office . . . but I can tell you for a fact that his analysis is deeply flawed and it doesn’t say a damn thing about whether or not the traces of accelerants he studied were actually from explosives ever in the possession of Steve Psinakis!”
Stunned to the teeth, Dr. Snyder thanked the FBI analyst for his courage and honesty . . . and then hurried off to confer with the defense team. And the results? As you might expect, Steve Psinakis was ultimately found innocent of all charges in the case.
Whitehurst was not so lucky, however.
Although the Assistant U.S. Attorney who’d been handling the case for the government ultimately wrote a letter to FBI Director Louis J. Freeh stating that he had reviewed the entire matter in detail, and that he was convinced Whitehurst had “done the right thing” in revealing his doubts about the mangled evidence, it was too late to save the Vietnam war hero from the retaliation that followed.
Whitehurst had “crossed the Rubicon” with his decision to blow the whistle on the malfunctioning explosives lab, and there was no turning back.
Within a few days, his life at the FBI would become a “living hell” – a brutal nightmare in which enraged agents and supervisors up and down the chain of command would do their best to punish him for having gone public with his information about the fraud and the perjury that he had witnessed daily in the FBI lab.