How the FBI blew the 9/11 MN Case
The inside story of the FBI whistle-blower who accuses her bosses of ignoring warnings of 9/11. A reading of her entire memo suggests a bracing blueprint for change
|| CNN | 2002
“Few Americans love anything about their government as much as Coleen Rowley loved the FBI. When she was in the fifth grade, Rowley wrote a letter to the bureau’s headquarters in Washington and got back a booklet called 100 Facts About the FBI. From that point on, she dreamed of becoming an agent. Friends say she protested when her dean at the University of Iowa Law School refused to let an FBI recruiter on campus; she lost the battle but applied for a job on her own and was hired as a special agent after earning her law degree in 1980. She took pride in being a pioneer, part of the first wave of women fighting to be taken seriously in the bureau’s male-dominated, button-down culture. She worked her way up the ladder as an FBI lawyer–handling applications for searches and wiretaps, working organized-crime cases in New York City and becoming, in 1995, chief counsel in the Minneapolis field office. She won a reputation as a highly disciplined professional, opinionated, principled and supremely devoted to her job. For seven years in the 1990s, she doubled as chief spokeswoman for the Minneapolis office, fending off the media hordes during big cases like the 1999 arrest of St. Paul housewife Sara Jane Olson, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who had been on the lam for two decades. Despite the stress and the risks, Rowley, a suburban mother of four, has never worked anywhere else. She is the family breadwinner, a competitive long-distance runner, a person, by all accounts, of substance.
All of which helps explain why friends and colleagues of Rowley were impressed but not altogether surprised when she put her career on the line last week to blow the whistle on the terrible failings of her beloved FBI. “She is the kind of person who always does what is right when nobody’s watching,” says one friend. “That is why she came out.” American life seems uniquely capable of producing stories like hers–a loyal public servant who clings to her belief in the system until a betrayal of that faith makes it impossible to stay silent. Rowley, unable to sleep at 3 a.m. one night in early May, drove to the office and wrote the first draft of a memo. She spent a week fine-tuning it, setting it aside for days, anguishing and at times doubting whether she could go through with it. Summoning her courage last Tuesday, she at last fired off the 13-page letter (“from the heart,” she writes) to her ultimate boss, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and flew to Washington to hand-deliver copies to two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and meet with committee staffers. The letter accuses the bureau of deliberately obstructing measures that could have helped disrupt the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI responded by marking the letter CLASSIFIED.
The product of months of gathering frustration, Rowley’s memo–a full copy of which was obtained by TIME–unspools in furious detail how, in the weeks leading up to the hijackings, officials at FBI headquarters systematically dismissed and undermined requests from Rowley’s Minneapolis field office for permission to obtain a warrant to wiretap and search the computer and belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, the French-Moroccan operative arrested in Minnesota last August and facing trial this fall as the sole person charged with conspiring in the attacks. Rowley asserts that the FBI didn’t “do much” to share information about Moussaoui with other government agencies or to match the evidence that Moussaoui took pilot lessons with an earlier report from a Phoenix field agent raising suspicions about Middle Eastern men enrolled in flight school. In Rowley’s view, bureaucratic incompetence stalled an investigation that may have led closer to the black heart of Osama bin Laden’s plot. “It’s at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to Sept. 11,” Rowley writes. “There is at least some chance that…may have limited the Sept. 11th attacks and resulting loss of life.”
Like no other document to emerge from the current firestorm over the mistakes and missed signals that led to Sept. 11, the Rowley memo casts a searing light into the depths of government ineptitude. In Washington, where the FBI and CIA may be criticized but are allowed to clean up their own messes as they see fit, the memo sent shudders through the establishment for a simple reason: it came from within. If Rowley’s account is accurate–and colleagues say she’s not one for shading the truth–her letter amounts to a colossal indictment of our chief law-enforcement agency’s neglect in the face of the biggest terrorist operation ever mounted on U.S. soil. It raises serious doubts about whether the FBI is capable of protecting the public–and whether it still deserves the public’s trust. While saying she does not believe the FBI director engaged in a post-9/11 cover-up, Rowley accuses Mueller and senior aides of having “omitted, downplayed, glossed over and / or mischaracterized” her office’s investigation of Moussaoui. After Sept. 11, top FBI officials decided to “circle the wagons,” as she puts it, and deny–as Mueller did immediately after the attacks–that the FBI had any knowledge that Islamic terrorists might be planning an attack involving hijacked airplanes. “I have deep concerns,” she writes, “that a delicate shading/skewing of facts by you and others at the highest levels of FBI management has occurred and is occurring.” Just 2 1/2 years from retirement, Rowley is now fretting about reprisals, friends say. She closes her letter by acknowledging “the frankness with which I have expressed myself” and asking for federal whistle-blower protection.”
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