The magazine's editors chose Coleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper and Sherron Watkins ``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.''
Time managing editor Jim Kelly said the women embody a critical struggle facing the country — how to restore trust in disgraced institutions, from major corporations to the Catholic Church.
``It's their modesty that's so becoming,'' Kelly told The Associated Press. ``All three are just resolute in standing up for what is right. All three of them are made of very strong character.''
Rowley, 48, wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller in May criticizing the agency for ignoring evidence before Sept. 11, 2001, that hinted of an attack.
She later told the Senate that the FBI was mired in bureaucracy and ``careerism.''
``I think there are changes in the works,'' Rowley said Sunday in a broadcast interview. ``We have yet to see how they're all going to work out. I think that, you know, we're trying.''
Cooper, 38, a WorldCom internal auditor, alerted the company's board in June to $3.8 billion in accounting irregularities. A month later, the telecommunications giant declared the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Watkins, 43, sent memos in August 2001 warning Enron chairman Kenneth Lay that improper accounting could cause the company to collapse. The company later filed for bankruptcy, and Watkins resigned as a vice president last month.
``I think in some of the higher echelons in corporate America, there is a little bit of an old boys' club that makes it more difficult for male executives to almost — I don't want to say rat out a friend, but that's almost — that is what I want to say,'' Watkins said during a broadcast interview.
Time's cover story on the three women compares them with Sept. 11 firefighters as heroes chosen 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,'' the magazine writes.
Last year, Time editors selected then-New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for leading the city's response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Critics suggested Osama bin Laden should have been the pick as the year's top newsmaker.
The 2002 picks are unusual because the vast majority of the magazine's Persons of the Year have been long-established public figures — world leaders, war heroes, corporate chiefs.
In an interview with Time editors, Rowley, Cooper and Watkins — nationally unknown before this year — said some colleagues now hate them for shedding light on the mistakes of their superiors.
``There is a price to be paid,'' Cooper said. ``There have been times that I could not stop crying.''
The magazine's Persons of the Year package includes profiles of the women and a joint interview of the three, conducted earlier this month. The issue hits newsstands Monday.