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9/11 Cover-up Document

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Persons of the Year 2002
Cynthia Cooper, Coleen Rowley and Sherron Watkins

They took huge professional and personal risks to blow the whistle on what went wrong at WorldCom, Enron and the FBI–and in so doing helped remind us what American courage and American values are all about

By Richard Lacayo and Amanda Ripley
Posted Sunday, December 22, 2002; 4:31 a.m. EST

This was the year when the grief started to lift and the worries came in.

During the first weeks of 2002, two dark moods entered the room, two anxieties that rattled down everybody's nerve paths, even on good days, and etched their particulars into the general disposition. To begin with, after Sept. 11, the passage of time drew off the worst of the pain, but every month or so there came a new disturbance–an orange alert, a dance-club bombing in Bali, a surface-to-air missile fired at a passenger jet–that showed us the beast still at our door.

In the confrontation with Iraq, in the contested effort to build a homeland defense, we all struggled to regain something like the more secure world we thought we lived in before the towers fell. But every step of the way we wondered–was this the way back? What exactly did we need to be doing differently?

And all the while there was the black comedy of corporate fraud. Who knew that the swashbuckling economy of the '90s had produced so many buccaneers? You could laugh about the CEOs in handcuffs and the stock analysts who turned out to be fishier than storefront palm readers, but after a while the laughs came hard. Martha Stewart was dented and scuffed. Tyco was looted by its own executives. Enron and WorldCom turned out to be Twin Towers of false promises. They fell. Their stockholders and employees went down with them. So did a large measure of public faith in big corporations. Each new offense seemed to make the same point: with communism vanquished, capitalism was left with no real enemies but its own worst impulses. It can be undone by its own overreaching players. It can be bitten to pieces by its own alpha dogs.

Day after day, one set of misgivings twined around the other, keeping spooked investors away from the stock market, giving the whole year its undeniable saw-toothed edge. Were we headed for a world where all the towers would fall? All the more reason to figure out quickly, before the next blow to the system, how to repair the fail-safe operations–in the boardrooms we trusted with our money, at the government agencies we trust with ourselves–that failed.

This is where three women of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts and sense come into the picture. Sherron Watkins is the Enron vice president who wrote a letter to chairman Kenneth Lay in the summer of 2001 warning him that the company's methods of accounting were improper. In January, when a congressional subcommittee investigating Enron's collapse released that letter, Watkins became a reluctant public figure, and the Year of the Whistle-Blower began. Coleen Rowley is the FBI staff attorney who caused a sensation in May with a memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller about how the bureau brushed off pleas from her Minneapolis, Minn., field office that Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now indicted as a Sept. 11 co-conspirator, was a man who must be investigated. One month later Cynthia Cooper exploded the bubble that was WorldCom when she informed its board that the company had covered up $3.8 billion in losses through the prestidigitations of phony bookkeeping.

These women were for the 12 months just ending what New York City fire fighters were in 2001: heroes at the scene, anointed by circumstance. They were people who did right just by doing their jobs rightly–which means ferociously, with eyes open and with the bravery the rest of us always hope we have and may never know if we do. Their lives may not have been at stake, but Watkins, Rowley and Cooper put pretty much everything else on the line. Their jobs, their health, their privacy, their sanity–they risked all of them to bring us badly needed word of trouble inside crucial institutions. Democratic capitalism requires that people trust in the integrity of public and private institutions alike. As whistle-blowers, these three became fail-safe systems that did not fail. For believing–really believing–that the truth is one thing that must not be moved off the books, and for stepping in to make sure that it wasn't, they have been chosen by TIME as its Persons of the Year for 2002.

For starters, they aren't people looking to hog the limelight. All initially tried to keep their criticisms in-house, to speak truth to power but not to Barbara Walters. They became public figures only because their memos were leaked. One reason you still don't know much about them is that none have given an on-the-record media interview until now. In early December TIME brought all three together in a Minneapolis hotel room. Very quickly it became clear that none of them are rebels in the usual sense. The truest of true believers is more like it, ever faithful to the idea that where they worked was a place that served the wider world in some important way. But sometimes it's the keepers of the flame who feel most compelled to set their imperfect temple to the torch. When headquarters didn't live up to its mission, they took it to heart. At Enron the company handed out note pads with inspiring quotes. One was from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." Watkins saw that quote every day. Didn't anybody else?

What more do they have in common? All three grew up in small towns in the middle of the country, in families that at times lived paycheck to paycheck. In a twist that will delight psychologists, they are all firstborns. More unusually, all three are married but serve as the chief breadwinners in their families. Cooper and Rowley have husbands who are full-time, stay-at-home dads. For every one of them, the decision to confront the higher-ups meant jeopardizing a paycheck their families truly depended on.

The joint interview in Minneapolis was the first time the three had met. But in no time they recognized how much they knew one another's experience. During the ordeals of this year, it energized them to know that there were two other women out there fighting the same kind of battles. In preparation for their meeting in Minneapolis, WorldCom's Cooper read through the testimony that Enron's Watkins gave before Congress. "I actually broke out in a cold sweat," Cooper says. In Minneapolis, when FBI lawyer Rowley heard Cooper talk about a need for regular people to step up and do the right thing, she stood up and applauded. And what to make of the fact that all are women? There has been talk that their gender is not a coincidence; that women, as outsiders, have less at stake in their organizations and so might be more willing to expose weaknesses. They don't think so. As it happens, studies have shown that women are actually a bit less likely than men to be whistle-blowers. And a point worth mentioning–all three hate the term whistle-blower. Too much like "tattletale," says Cooper.

But if the term unnerves them a bit, that may be because whistle-blowers don't have an easy time. Almost all say they would not do it again. If they aren't fired, they're cornered: isolated and made irrelevant. Eventually many suffer from alcoholism or depression.

With these three, that hasn't happened, though Watkins left her job at Enron after a few months when she wasn't given much to do. But ask them if they have been thanked sincerely by anyone at the top of their organization, and they burst out laughing. Some of their colleagues hate them, especially the ones who believe that their outfits would have quietly righted all wrongs if only they had been given time. "There is a price to be paid," says Cooper. "There have been times that I could not stop crying."

Watkins, Rowley and Cooper have kick-started conversations essential to the clean operation of American life, conversations that will continue for years. It may still be true that no one could have prevented the attacks of Sept. 11, but the past year has shown that the FBI and the CIA overlooked vital clues and held back data from each other. No matter how many new missile systems the Pentagon deploys or which new airport screening systems are adopted, if we can't trust the institutions charged with tracking terrorists to do the job, homeland defense will be an empty phrase. The Coleen Rowleys of the federal workforce will be the ones who will let us know what's going on.

As for corporate America, accounting scams of the kind practiced at Enron and WorldCom will continually need to be exposed and corrected before yet another phalanx of high-level operators gets the wrong idea and a thousand Enrons bloom. And the people best positioned to call them on it will be sitting in offices like the ones that Watkins and Cooper occupied. The new Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires CEOs and CFOs to vouch for the accuracy of their companies' books, is just one sign of what Cooper calls "a corporate-governance revolution across the country."

These were ordinary people who did not wait for higher authorities to do what needed to be done. Literature's great statement on unwelcome truth telling is Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People. Something said by one of his characters reminds us of what we admire about our Dynamic Trio. "A community is like a ship," he observes. "Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm." When the time came, these women saw the ship in citizenship. And they stepped up to that wheel.

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