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Tom Mueller discusses uncannily timed book on whistleblowers ahead of Northwest Passages event

Tom Mueller (Courtesy of Tom Mueller / Courtesy)

Considering all that has happened in the past few weeks, it’s remarkable that author Tom Mueller spent nearly seven years working on his latest book – “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud” – which will be released this week, exactly when the subject of whistleblowing is on everyone’s mind.

Mueller’s previous book, “Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,” was a New York Times bestseller in 2011 and 2012. In that book, he showed that a deeply reported story about a subject few might think of for such a long-form exposé can be a wildly entertaining read in the hands of a talented writer.

At close to 600 pages, “Crisis of Conscience” accomplishes the same thing for whistleblowers, only with an incredible relevance that is almost startling at times.

He’s written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, the New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly while living or working in 48 countries, yet Spokane is his official residence. On Monday, Oct. 28, Mueller will come home as a featured author for The Spokesman-Review’s popular Northwest Passages book club and community forum series. Tickets are on sale now, and the event is expected to sell out.

Last week, while in Italy, Mueller answered questions via email about his new book. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Curley: How was writing this book different than “Extra Virginity?”

Mueller: Actually, given the vast difference in subject matter, the two books have surprising similarities. Both started as a relatively limited project, and evolved/morphed/exploded to fill my entire mental field of vision. Both are rooted in fraud, misconduct and abuse, the dark shadow behind the brightest scenes. And above all, the key to both books – the high octane fuel for their narratives – were a cast of truly exceptional characters, whose acts, courage and philosophies of life permanently enriched my own.

Tom Mueller's book "Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud".  (Courtesy Mueller)
Tom Mueller’s book “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud”. (Courtesy Mueller)

What were some of your biggest “aha moments through researching and writing “Conscience of Conscience?”

There were two big surprises.

One, when I began to see that the many different whistleblower classes I’ve been looking at, including national security whistleblowers – all of which I assumed were radically different in form and in substance – actually were members of the same human species with almost identical group-individual dynamics, identical retaliation patterns, identical attitude of the whistleblowers before, during and after their disclosures.

And two, the growing realization that my book, almost of its own volition, was becoming as much about the drivers of whistleblowing – institutional corruption and decline of conscience that prompts people to speak out – as about the whistleblowers themselves. Pioneering whistleblower lawyer Mary Louise Cohen, in one of our interviews, told me, “You should just write about whistleblowers. You should write about what on Earth has happened to corporate America.”

She was right, and I’ve done that … or done my best, anyway.

What are your initial takes on the current White House whistleblower, based upon all of your research for “Crisis of Conscience”?

Many observers have described this case as unprecedented. I strongly disagree. In my book – in the chapter “Ministries of Truth” – I detail how numerous national security insiders blew the whistle on severe wrongdoing, and paid a terrible price in their work and their private lives – even when they made their disclosures strictly through official channels. The broken whistleblower structure currently being revealed in the DNI (Director of National Intelligence) whistleblower case is very much par for the course.

From your book, there is a feeling that for a whistleblower to really have success, there are almost certain protocols that need to be followed. Does it appear that’s the case with the current White House whistleblower? And does it look like those protocols were followed?

It is clear to me and to all careful observers that the DNI whistleblower, at every phase of the process, rigorously followed the law and the regulations on how to make whistleblower disclosures. This person only suggested they might deviate from protocol – by testifying directly to Congress – when it appeared that their disclosure would not be transmitted to Congress, as the law clearly requires. (Acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire) himself stated that this whistleblower followed the law throughout.

What’s your take on the things Maguire said in his testimony?

My sense from reading transcripts and watching Maguire’s testimony is that he was a basically honorable man caught in a tricky situation, without sufficient knowledge to know how to navigate it, and with too much deference to his political leaders. The Intelligence Community Whistleblower Protection Act of 1998 states without a shadow a wiggle room that, if the Inspector General reviews a whistleblower complaint and finds it both “credible” and “urgent,” then that complaint “shall” be transmitted to Congress within seven days. “Shall” is the statutory language that Congress uses when they want to take all room for interpretation out of the situation.

Nevertheless, showing what I think was an excessive sensitivity to political pressure, Maguire consulted both the White House Counsel’s Office and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel – the same folks who gave us the torture memos, among other legal monstrosities – instead of just following the law. But to his great credit, Maguire has repeatedly expressed his support for this whistleblower, and his belief that the whistleblower acted in good faith and according to law.

Early on in the book, you note William Barr’s take on whistleblowers from earlier in his career. What does that mean now that he is the Attorney General?

It means that the current Attorney General of the United States has a visceral hatred of whistleblowers and the laws that protect them. He believes them to be legal “abominations.” Even if he cannot expunge whistleblowing from the law books as I suspect he would like, he can put his very heavy thumb on many scales at the Department of Justice, until the balance moves away from whistleblowers in specific cases, as well as in formulation of new laws and the application of old ones.

Your book shows the White House’s reaction to the Pentagon Papers through different presidential administrations, as well as to prolific whistleblower Ernie Fitzgerald. How do you read the current administrations reaction to this case?

(Richard) Nixon was outspoken that such acts of conscience were, in his view, betrayals and probably treason. Nixon’s Plumbers unit considered doing bodily harm to (Pentagon Papers leaker) Daniel Ellsberg. Trump echoes this, including saying that this “spy” should be dealt with as spies were in the good old days – implying he should be rubbed out.

Do you agree with Ellsberg that leaking is not treasonous, but instead the ultimate act of patriotism?

That depends on what is leaked. If someone leaks top-secret plans of nuclear weapons to the Russians, that’s treason, not patriotism. But if someone leaks, as Ellsberg did, proof of lies, malfeasance and wrongdoing by a series of presidents and other high officials that was perpetuating an illegitimate and unwinnable war, they are patriots.

“Crisis of Conscience” basically makes the case that this nation’s Founding Fathers are the ultimate examples of whistleblowers – thus wanting to protect, even encourage, whistleblowing as a core element of a this country’s democracy. That was one of the first moments of surprise in the book for me. How did you come to that conclusion?

The Founders treated whistleblowers with great respect, and passed laws that protected them. What’s more, the Founders themselves behaved like whistleblowers. Think about it: These men consciously, and at enormous risk, denied the authority of their divine monarch King George III to follow a higher authority: truth and justice.

They broke their loyalty to Mother Britain to follow higher loyalties to their new nation and to humankind. They believed in the sovereign importance of the individual and of the individual conscience. They affirmed not just the right but the duty of each individual to reveal wrongdoing that puts the public in harm’s way.

This all sounds like whistleblower behavior to me.

In many ways, your book uses the whistleblower as a vehicle to explain the most important concepts of our democracy, but done in a way that’s never boring or overbearing. Was that your original point for this book or more of a powerful byproduct?

It was a byproduct, an emergent phenomenon. As I went deeper into whistleblowing, I began to wonder why it was on the rise in so many different areas of our society. This led me to delve into the motivations of individual whistleblowers, and look for a common factors that united many whistleblower stories.

Again and again, I saw the same drivers of a person of conscience denouncing wrongdoing: conflicts of interest like the revolving door; cults of secrecy and money; unhealthy melding of public and private; and so forth. These underlying causes of the Age of Whistleblowing became the yin to whistleblowing’s yang in my book – the cause and effect that I felt needed to be discussed in tandem.

And, hopefully, as you say, without boring too many people!

It feels like there still is a real stigma tied to whistleblowers. Why?

Because loyalty is one of the most powerful human emotions, and we apply it uncritically, even in contexts where it should not exist. If you discover that your sister, a nurse at a local hospital, has been quietly euthanizing elderly patients in her care, do you remain loyal to her and not inform the police? Or if you are a member of the mafia, and after many crimes of your own, get sick of the killing and report your fellow henchmen to the authorities, should you be branded as a traitor?

The answers here seem clear in the abstract, but in our gut, no matter how many lives a whistleblower saves, no matter how noble and courageous they are, we still have that little voice of loyalty in our minds whispering, “Yeah, but they turned on their own – they crossed the line. And they deserve what they get.” Which often isn’t pretty.

Do you think people understand what drives many whistleblowers, and all that these people typically lose in their lives because of their moment of committing truth?

I think most of us, when presented with a hypothetical case, feel we would do the right thing, just as the whistleblower does. But when we are acting in the midst of a strong, tight-knit team, at the orders of a charismatic leader, most of us do not have the clarity of thought or the strength of character to resist the actions of the group and do the right thing. Stanley Milgram’s shock experiments, and countless other social psychology experiments of the last 50 years, prove this.

And, no, most people emphatically do not understand the terrible losses that whistleblowers suffer, in their careers, their personal lives, their finances, their physical and psychological health. People routinely cheer whistleblowers as David vs. Goliath success stories, marvel at the big bounties they collect – which rarely are a patch on the money they would’ve made by keeping silent – and enjoy warm feelings watching whistleblower heroics in Hollywood films.

But they completely fail to see the de facto destruction of whistleblowers in real life.