The 2002 Person of the Year:
Coleen Rowley —
FBI agent cast in
the role of Cassandra
with terrorist links – were enrolled in local flight schools. While not the primary focus of the memo, a Saudi national who was among those that trained in Phoenix, Hani Hanjour, later flew a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon.
It was apparently the third time that the FBI had rejected similar warnings. In 1998, an Oklahoma City agent wrote a superior that such training could be linked to “planned terrorist activity.” The bureau received further information that “a terrorist organization might be planning to bring students to the U.S. for training at a flight school.” And in 1999, when a third tip was received, the bureau did send a communiqué to its 24 field offices requesting an all-out investigation, but none were ever conducted, according to a report issued in September by Eleanor Hill, staff director of the Congressional hearings into pre-9/11 activities.
“[Rowley’s] letter is a very good letter, and I infer from its content that it was needed,” Edwin J. DeLattre, a resident scholar at Boston University and an expert on law enforcement ethics, told Law Enforcement News. “I infer this as well from the experience of my dear friend John O’Neill, who was a leading anti-terrorism expert.”
O’Neill, who had led the bureau’s investigation into the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, retired from the FBI in August 2001. He was killed on Sept. 11 at the World Trade Center, his first day at his new job as head of security for the Twin Towers.
Said DeLattre: “O’Neill should have been given much more room to complete his investigations than he had, so I wasn’t terribly surprised when I read Coleen Rowley’s letter.”
Richard Gallo, the president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, believes that Rowley did what she felt she had to do, but no one has yet posed the question of why she was put in that position. “The reason why is because our payment classification system is broken,” he told LEN.
A law signed in 1990 by then-President George Bush stated that federal law enforcement salaries shall be separated from the general schedule, the payment classification system for employees of the federal government. Failure to do so by the Office of Personnel Management over the past 13 years has led to a recruitment and retention crisis in federal law enforcement, Gallo asserted. Salaries for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service or Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are approximately two-thirds those of many municipal law enforcement positions. A first-year salary for a federal law officer, he noted, is $36,000, whereas a starting salary for a Chicago police detective is $63,000.
“When we go into the supervisory positions, we get zero applicants for first-line supervisory positions in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, and sometimes at headquarters,” said Gallo, an investigator with the Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.
Too often, top-notch agents will turn down a promotion if it means being assigned to Washington, D.C., where depressed salaries and inflated housing costs make it a difficult transition, he said.
“You’re going to get more headaches because this is a promotion. Your commute is going to be doubled. And it’s not any more pay. So why do you go? You don’t go,” said Gallo. “So headquarters’ first choice to take over that position isn’t there. Not their second choice, their third choice, more like their eighth or ninth choice, or more like someone who is just going there to punch their ticket and get the hell out of Dodge.”
Rowley, 48, has served with the bureau for more than two decades, having joined after earning her law degree from the University of Iowa. While assigned to the New York field office in the 1980s, Rowley worked on organized-crime cases. In 1984, she escorted mobster Gennaro Langella on his “perp walk” before the cameras. Later, she worked on the investigation of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer responsible for the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami Beach in 1997. Rowley won an FBI award for her efforts. She was also involved in the case of Kathleen Soliah, a fugitive member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, who was captured by Minneapolis agents in 1999 while living under the name Sarah Jane Olson.
While neither Rowley, nor any of the Congressional investigative committees, have concluded that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented, Rowley was quick to point out in her letter that “…it’s at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to September 11th.”
Her involvement began with Zacarias Moussaoui, a French-Moroccan who was arrested by federal agents on Aug. 16, 2001, after he is reported to have acted suspiciously while training at a flight school. Those suspicions ripened into probable cause, Rowley wrote, after French intelligence services confirmed his links to radical Islamic causes and Osama bin Laden. While Moussaoui was being held on a visa violation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Rowley and other agents from the Minneapolis office sought a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to search his laptop. Officials at FBI headquarters rebuffed the request, deeming the evidence insufficient. A warrant was finally granted on Sept. 11. The only difference, she noted, was that, by then, three jetliners had crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. Moussaoui’s computer revealed data on the cockpit layouts of commercial jets. It also contained the phone number in Germany for the roommate of Mohammed Atta, the attack’s ringleader.
In the ensuing months, the notion that “hindsight is 20/20” has been amply bandied about, but DeLattre maintains that the past is highly subject to interpretation. “People disagree about how to understand the past so it’s not possible for everybody’s vision to be 20/20,” he said. “Her argument is that a search warrant should have been sought by the FBI, and that argument seems to me irrefutable.”
In her letter, Rowley states that her office was continually thwarted by a supervisory agent who seemed to deliberately throw up roadblocks and obstacles. FISA warrants are approved by a special court of rotating judges. Prior to a change in policy said to have been directly related to the Moussaoui case, the FBI director signed off on all such applications, but did not review those that had been rejected inside headquarters. Now, all applications for FISA warrants related to terrorism investigations will be routed to the bureau’s chief of counterterrorism and counterintelligence, and then to Mueller for review if it is rejected by a mid-level supervisor, according to a report by The Washington Post.
Rowley was thrust into the spotlight on June 6 when she became a star witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee. For nearly five hours, she reiterated much of what was in her letter, describing a pecking order within the bureau that discouraged agents from questioning decisions on which cases to pursue, and how to conduct investigations. Lawmakers sat stunned as she told them of computer technology so primitive that it was impossible to enter phrases such as “flight school.” Searching by entering single words, such as aviation, produced unworkably long lists of documents, said Rowley.
Testifying after Mueller had appeared before the panel, Rowley said she was encouraged by the director’s remarks “because I think many of his ideas so seem to go in the right direction and actually are quite consistent with the various items I had in my letter to him.” Mueller, she said, had an “extremely difficult job…”
Rowley has been assured that her position with the bureau is safe, but she nonetheless applied for protection under the federal whistleblower statute. Some two years away from retirement, she is her family’s sole breadwinner. Her husband, Ross, is a stay-at-home father for the couple’s four children.
While there are many in law enforcement who applauded Rowley’s actions this year, others viewed her decision to go outside the bureau with her criticisms as reprehensible. After dropping off her letter to Mueller, Rowley also left copies for two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I don’t know the lady, from what I know she is extremely competent and well-liked in the Minneapolis office,” Tom Tierney, president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, told LEN. “I would have preferred her to stay within the bureau with this information, simply because I think it does some damage to our reputation which isn’t really deserved.”
According to Tierney, an informal poll of members on the group’s computer network came up just about evenly split for and against Rowley’s course of action.
“She probably acted in good faith, but I just don’t think you could have everyone in an organization running outside every time they have a disagreement with the boss,” he said. “It wouldn’t work for any organization, any corporation. I just think it should have been kept in-house.”
Jim Roth, former chief counsel for the bureau’s New York office, was much more emphatic in his criticism of Rowley. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal dated June 3, 2002, Roth argued that there was no indication that agents at the Minneapolis office made any effort “to sell their case to FBIHQ and fight for it prior to 9/11.”
Describing how his office had gone about pushing requests up the line in the past, Roth noted: “At every point along the way, we were willing to work with FBIHQ and the DOJ to resolve the issues, rather than content ourselves with arguing and firing back at HQ. When we disagreed with FBIHQ officials we did not make it personal and question their motives and integrity.”
Roth told LEN that he believed Rowley exercised poor judgment and that her letter was “intemperate in tone.” It was her obligation as legal counsel to reach out to National Security Law Unit and make sure they heard from Minneapolis, he said. “I don’t mean you have to be a pitch man, but when someone gives you a bad time on your case, and you think they’re wrong, if you’re on to something, you have to go to bat for it.” Nothing in the public record indicates that the office did that, said Roth.
Others, however, believe just as firmly that Rowley showed a lot of guts in exposing the bureau’s shortcomings.
“The issues raised by Ms. Rowley needed to be raised,” insisted Capt. Ty Blocker of the Pennsylvania State Police, who is president of the Society of Police Futurists International. “She did it within an organization where, traditionally, one does not step out of school. I think she is tremendously courageous and set an example for all law enforcement officials about speaking out on issues and circumstances that are not correct,” he told LEN.
FLEOA’s Gallo agreed. “It’s very brave for a person in the crowd to shout out, ‘The emperor has no clothes on,’ ” he said. Rowley’s action could trigger real change in the FBI if backed up by policy and legislative initiatives, said Gallo. “With a change in culture, you’re talking about from one generation to another, almost,” he said
“It will still have an effect, over time.”