Tom Mueller's New Book Delves Into the World of Whistleblowers

As whistleblowers dominate headlines in the United States, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud shines a light on the history of whistleblowing and people who do it.

Photo by Dave Yoder
Oct. 7, 2019
By Daniel Dawson
Photo by Dave Yoder

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Tom Mueller, author of the New York Times best­seller Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, is back with a new inves­tiga­tive book delv­ing into the world of whistle­blow­ers: Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud.

I started with a fas­ci­nat­ing but small area of whistle­blow­ing, the False Claims Act or Lincoln Law,’ signed into law by Abraham Lincoln at the height of the Civil War to fight con­trac­tor fraud,” Mueller told Olive Oil Times.

It’s only when the other watch­dogs… are muz­zled or euth­a­nized that whistle­blow­ers, left as the last line of defense, are com­pelled to act.- Tom Mueller

Gradually my ambit of whistle­blow­ing grew, as I real­ized that the human dynam­ics of a toxic orga­ni­za­tion and one per­son who turns against it – both the per­son­al­i­ties of the whistle­blow­ers and the nature of the retal­i­a­tion they suf­fer – was uni­ver­sal,” he added.

As Mueller delved deeper into the psy­chol­ogy, his­tory and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy of whistle­blow­ing, the scope of the book bur­geoned. Over the course of seven years, he inter­viewed more than 200 whistle­blow­ers and 1,000 other experts, includ­ing attor­neys, pros­e­cu­tors and social sci­en­tists.

I also spent a lot of time with many of my whistle­blow­ers, get­ting to know their his­to­ries and their char­ac­ter,” he said. This makes the sto­ries more authen­tic and com­pelling.”


Mueller has worked with whistle­blow­ers before. A few of them helped him get the inside story on the fraud in the olive oil indus­try for Extra Virginity.

In part, the com­mon thread between olive oil and whistle­blow­ing is the under­ly­ing fraud, which threat­ens both great oil and coura­geous whistle­blow­ers,” he said.

In spite of the fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences between Crisis of Conscience and Extra Virginity, Mueller said that there were some sur­pris­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. Both books began as lim­ited projects before expand­ing into in-depth exposes.

Both books also focussed on indi­vid­ual sto­ries, which helped to turn abstract ideas into com­pelling nar­ra­tives.

As with my olive oil book, Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing in an Age of Fraud is very def­i­nitely cen­tered on human sto­ries,” he said. I inter­weave the his­tory, psy­chol­ogy [and] evo­lu­tion­ary biol­ogy of whistle­blow­ing within grip­ping nar­ra­tives of real-life whistle­blow­ers in dra­matic, some­times life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions.”

The book, which went on sale last week, could not have come at a more timely moment.

Two com­plaints against President Donald Trump have brought whistle­blow­ers to the front of the news. While many observers have called these com­plaints unprece­dented, Mueller dis­agrees, cit­ing numer­ous exam­ples in his book of pre­vi­ous national secu­rity insid­ers blow­ing the whis­tle and deal­ing with the con­se­quences.

Mueller added that the whistle­blow­ing events that are cur­rently unfold­ing demon­strate how bro­ken the sys­tem is for pro­tect­ing whistle­blow­ers. While work­ing on Extra Virginity, Mueller noticed that the sys­tem was sim­i­larly flawed, which may explain why the story of ram­pant fraud through­out the olive oil sec­tor took so long to come to the sur­face.

Italian law did­n’t offer the kinds of pro­tec­tions to whistle­blow­ers back then that they need to come for­ward – but the recently-passed Whistleblower Protection Directive now gives the E.U. stronger whistle­blower laws than the U.S.,” he said.

More so than being a book about coura­geous peo­ple who do the right thing, Crisis of Conscience shows how so many mod­ern busi­ness and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions have been designed to pro­tect fraud and make incon­ve­nient truths harder to uncover.

We should not need whistle­blow­ers,” Mueller said. As so many of them have told me, I hate the word whistle­blower’! I was just doing my job!’ It’s only when the other watch­dogs – inves­ti­ga­tors, inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ists, gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors and oth­ers – are muz­zled or euth­a­nized that whistle­blow­ers, left as the last line of defense, are com­pelled to act.”

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