Coleen Rowley’s email signature is a quote by Edward Abbey: “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.”
This couldn’t be more apt once you know her history. Rowley is best known for being a FBI whistleblower, exposing issues leading up to 9/11.
Rowley grew up in New Hampton, Iowa and was valedictorian of her high school class. After graduating from college with a BA in French, she received a JD from the University of Iowa College of Law. The following year, she became a special agent with the FBI.
Like most young people, Rowley was influenced by TV shows and movies. In her case, however, they were ones that portrayed law enforcement and the spy world as exciting and heroic public service. In fifth grade, “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was her favorite show – so much so that she wrote to her local newspaper asking what U.N.C.L.E.’s address was so she could get information. The editor actually wrote back, telling Rowley that the show was fictional, but sharing the address of a similar organization in the U.S. called the FBI.
“Unfortunately, when I then wrote to the FBI, they sent me J. Edgar Hoover’s “99 Facts About the FBI,” one of which was that women were not allowed to become FBI agents,” recalls Rowley. “I figured that would not last, however, and in fact that sex discrimination ended as I went through college and law school and kept pursuing the FBI agent career.”
In the beginning, she was assigned to the Omaha, Nebraska, and Jackson, MS divisions. A few years later, she spent six years working in the NYC field office. There, Rowley worked mostly on wiretaps relating to mob-connected construction extortion schemes that ended up in criminal racketeering prosecutions of most of the hierarchy of four big La Cosa Nostra (LCN) “families.”
After a few temporary assignments, including one at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, Rowley was transferred to the FBI’s MN field office where she became Chief Division Counsel. This meant having oversight of the Freedom of Information, Forfeiture, Victim-Witness, and Community Outreach programs. This is where her story gets even more interesting.
As Rowley tells it: “A FBI case agent and INS agent on the Minneapolis Joint Terrorism Task Force quickly investigated after local flight instructors became whistleblowers, tipping the FBI off to their most suspicious student pilot, Zacarias Moussaoui in mid-August 2001. The agents conducted interviews and became so suspicious of the French Moroccan that they immediately took Moussaoui into INS custody since his visa had lapsed. Then they sent off requests to Paris and London authorities for more background information. When the information quickly came back from French authorities confirming Moussaoui’s connection to a Chechen terrorist group whose head was connected to Osama bin Laden, the case agent quickly put together an emergency request of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to search all of Moussaoui’s belongings.
But FBI Headquarters supervisory personnel were reticent to follow through with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) request for a lot of reasons. They (mistakenly) claimed there was insufficient probable cause to believe that Moussaoui was acting as an agent of a terrorist group. But there were other reasons they were career risk averse, plus the entire FISA law suffered at the time from contradictory guidance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) and pre-existing mistaken legal interpretations.
I tried to explain some of this in my ‘whistleblower’ memo to the FBI Director in connection with the Joint Intelligence Congressional Committee Inquiry, which had begun about eight months after the 9/11 attacks. My memo led to a more full investigation by the Department of Justice Inspector General. At one point a couple of weeks before the September 11 attacks, a frustrated FBI supervisor in Minneapolis arguing with FBI HQ personnel presciently said that ‘Moussaoui was a guy who could fly into the World Trade Center.’ When a search warrant was finally executed on his belongings, bits of evidence and fingerprints tied him to the plot of the other 9/11 hijackers.”
Rowley notes that the evidence connecting Moussaoui to the plot wasn’t found in his laptop but in documents and other items agents seized at the time of his arrest. If the agents’ request for an emergency FISA search had been forwarded in August 2001 to DOJ attorneys and then approved by a FISA judge, there’s a chance that the scope of the 9/11 attacks could have been reduced. Even more likely is if the urgent July memo from a Phoenix agent who had discovered terrorist suspects training in flight schools had been connected with the discovery of Moussaoui, FBI agents might have quickly contacted flight schools, revealing some of the other hijackers.
“Finally, the FAA may have taken warnings more seriously and instituted further precautions such as firmly locking all cockpit doors (which was done quickly after 9/11),” adds Rowley. “The 9/11 Commission wrote that even if Moussaoui’s arrest had been widely published, it may have deterred the other terrorist hijackers.”
Frustrated by all of this, Rowley recommended that the FBI tell the full truth. She explained why this was necessary in her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee – even in this sad situation with 3,000 tragic deaths when no one naturally wanted to accept any blame. Her memo led to a two-year long investigation by the DOJ Inspector General (IG) that looked at and “did a fair job” of chronicling the three main areas of pre 9/11 FBI failure.
“But even so,” Rowley says, “some agents have since admitted that they were coerced into not telling the full truth to the IG so there are still areas that have been covered up – the main open question being why did the CIA not tell the FBI of its lengthy surveillance of these Al Qaeda suspects and share their information that two Al Qaeda members had traveled to California?”
In the course of the congressional investigations, a 9/11 Commission, and IG investigation, it was found that failure to share information within agencies, between agencies, and with the public allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur. In many cases, key FBI personnel denied having even read memos containing important information even though they were addressed to them by name. Federal Air Marshal Bogdan Dzakovic and Rowley wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times describing these problems in depth.
After the 9/11 Commission issued its findings, information was shared more widely amongst FBI personnel and other intelligence agencies. “But this wider sharing of information did not last long as things again became more secretive,” says Rowley. “As far as I know, nothing was ever done to make it possible to ascertain if a specific memo was actually read by the named recipient, so it’s probably still easy for someone to simply deny that they did not see a piece of information.”
Compared to most other whistleblowers, Rowley was lucky. Four different senators and the two heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke out in her defense and wrote to then FBI Director Robert Mueller and Attorney General Ashcroft requesting she not be fired. Rowley doesn’t think the FBI would have had a solid base for terminating her, as she didn’t leak any classified information. Her memo was internal and in connection with an official congressional inquiry. But she was told that Headquarters was looking for a way to fire her. Media support helped, and even the FBI Agents Association supported her memo.
Then Time Magazine’s cover story in December 2002 was “Persons of the Year,” featuring Rowley and two other female whistleblowers, Sherron Watkins from Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom.
Rowley calls this a double-edged sword that made people suspicious of her motives, like she was somehow seeking notoriety. She thinks the reason the three of them ended up as Whistleblower Persons of the Year is they each worked at least a few rungs below the level of power in their organizations and weren’t members of the “good ole boys’ club.” It’s easier to spot wrongdoing from at least a bit of a distance, like women who have been kept for a long time under the glass ceiling, she says. “However, as the glass ceiling gets shattered with more and more women assuming the top positions of power in organizations, I think this is bound to change,” she continues.
When Rowley wrote a second memo to FBI Director Mueller in February 2003, she warned Mueller that his own deception and dissembling in going along with the illegal launching of the Iraq War would backfire and prove counterproductive, that terrorism and police violence would both increase, which the FBI would be unprepared for and incapable of reducing. She received little to no support for speaking out, but she says at this point, nearly all FBI personnel had turned pro-war. She wasn’t surprised, since 70 percent of the American public had come to falsely believe that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks.
She shared her concerns with the NY Times and then felt she had to step down from her GS-14 Division Legal Counsel position. This meant her retirement pension was effectively reduced. To make it to retirement eligibility, she volunteered for jobs in the Minneapolis FBI office that no one wanted – for 21 months.
And of course, 10 years later, her warning was proven correct in the increase of mass shootings and other gun violence. She detailed it in an op-ed published in the Minneapolis StarTribune.
Rowley doesn’t have any real regrets about having tried to educate people with both of her memos, “even though they proved futile and useless in preventing the worst.” She regrets some minor aspects, such as likening some of the FBI Headquarters personnel to “moles” due to their continuous actions thwarting the Moussaoui investigation. “This term may have fueled some counterproductive conspiracy theories,” she says.
What Rowley does regret is that she has slowly burned out after 19 years of trying uselessly in all different ways “to stop this dangerous insanity, especially now when U.S. leaders have embarked on military confrontation of other nuclear superpowers, increasing the risk of nuclear war, nuclear winter, and planetary omnicide.”
Since 2003, Rowley has spoken publicly on ethics and ethical decision making. She’s also a writer and blogger. In June 2015, she went on a Stand Up for Truth speaking tour with other whistleblowers. Married with four children, during her time in the FBI, she was the sole breadwinner for her family.
During the pandemic, she’s mostly listening to folk music and music from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Years ago, she attended Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday party and the “fantastic” Madison Square Garden concert that followed with dozens of his folk legend colleagues. A life highlight was surely singing along to one of her favorite songs on the stage behind Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez Seeger. The unsurprisingly perfect title? Gonna Reap Just What You Sow. The performance is on YouTube.
Rowley says it’s hard to give any good advice to people who are in a no-win situation of witnessing fraud, waste, abuse, illegality, or serious risk to public safety by their superiors. “They need to consider how they will be able to live with themselves and deal with the potentially bad consequences no matter what they do,” she says.
Of course Rowley’s favorite bumper sticker is “Jesus ❤︎ Wikileaks,” which stems from Bible verse Mark 4:22: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.”