LEN salutes its 2002 Person of the Year:
A very special agent
Coleen Rowley of the FBI sheds light on
institutional failings in pre-9/11 terrorism probes
By Jennifer Nislow
Ethical decisions are made by individual law enforcement officers every day, but only rarely do they affect national security to the degree that a 13-page letter written by a veteran FBI field agent did last spring.
In her May 21 memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, Coleen Rowley, who is legal counsel to the Minneapolis field office, accused bureau management of shading and omitting facts that would cause embarrassment to either persons or the institution for lapses relating to pre-9/11 probes. Her superiors, she said, deliberately thwarted efforts to obtain a search warrant for the laptop of a man later accused of being the 20th hijacker. And agents from Minneapolis were never informed that only three weeks earlier a memo had been sent by a Phoenix-based agent which warned that al Qaeda operatives could be seeking flight training for terrorist purposes, said Rowley.
“Although the last thing the FBI or the country needs now is a witch hunt, I do find it odd that (to my knowledge) no inquiry whatsoever was launched of the relevant FBIHQ personnel’s actions a long time ago,” she wrote. “It’s true we all make mistakes and I’m not suggesting that HQ personnel in question ought to be burned at the stake, but we all need to be held accountable for serious mistakes…”
Whether one believes that Coleen Rowley was a hero or, as some do, a turncoat who betrayed her agency by airing its failures in the most public of forums, there is little doubt of the impact she had on law enforcement in 2002. The nature and extent of any long-term implications that her actions may have remain to be seen. Clearly visible, however, is her courage in speaking truth to power, for the good of the country and at potential risk to her career. It is this courage, coming from a most unassuming member of the nation’s most vaunted law enforcement agency, that compels Rowley’s selection as the Law Enforcement News Person of the Year for 2002.
Rowley is clearly a reluctant honoree, who resists being singled out for actions she contends did not go beyond the requirements of her job. “It wasn’t just me…. Our whole office was basically just telling the truth about what happened here,” she told LEN. “Actually, there are other agents in my division who had more of a first-hand, direct involvement in the underlying investigation, a lot more involvement.”
Uncomfortable though she may be with her newfound prominence, Rowley does acknowledge that it has given her a forum from which to speak out against laws that impede effective federal investigations, such as the 1999 McDade Amendment, which subjects federal prosecutors to state bar rules and has had the effect in some cases of prohibiting contact between U.S. attorneys and police agencies engaged in undercover narcotics operations. Rowley would also like to see modifications to the Miranda rule, especially where public safety is concerned, as well as to the nation’s encryption laws. “It’s terrible right now,” she said, “We’re seeing more and more encrypted communications between criminals and terrorists.”
“When we have a law that’s either wrong or creating huge problems or impediments, it’s law enforcement’s job to keep speaking out about it,” said Rowley. “When I have a chance, I’m going to keep bringing those up.”
Rowley’s letter, a copy of which was also sent to key Congressional leaders, was made public as lawmakers, recovering from the immediate shock of 9/11, began grappling with the question of why the nation’s vaunted intelligence apparatus was unable to “connect the dots.” Some believe the clues reach back nearly a decade. In 1994, for example, a “test bomb” was detonated aboard a Philippine Airlines jet which exposed an al Qaeda plot to blow up more than a dozen jets over the Pacific. In 2000, the CIA began noting increased signs of terrorist activities abroad. And in the spring of 2001, specific threats were received by the White House from intelligence sources which said the Middle Eastern terrorist group could potentially attack U.S. interests overseas.
From May through early July of 2001, intelligence officials told law enforcement that domestic attacks could not be ruled out. A spike in the number of threats suggested that President Bush might be a target during an economic summit meeting in Italy. During this period, the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration urged U.S. government interests to operate with caution; a worldwide alert issued by the agencies warned that explosives could be used at airport terminals. In July, non-essential travel by U.S. counterterrorism staff was suspended.
Later that month, the so-called Phoenix memo cited by Rowley was sent to headquarters. Its author, Kenneth Williams, an agent with the Arizona office’s international terrorism unit, noted that a large number of Middle Eastern men – some