How the FBI blew the 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
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.
Her words had an unintended resonance last week as the country tried to make sense of chilling warnings from Mueller and other top officials who rattled off a litany of "inevitable" terrorist attacks against the U.S. as if they had all just been to a screening of The Sum of All Fears. By now, most Americans know better than to feel safe, but last week the Bush Administration helpfully reminded us just how frightened we're supposed to be. Coupled with an FBI advisory about possible al-Qaeda attacks on the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the stream of official doomsaying caused a new round of jitters in time for summer vacation.
Though uncorroborated and vague, the terror alerts were a political godsend for an Administration trying to fend off a bruising bipartisan inquiry into its handling of the terrorist chatter last summer. After the wave of warnings, the Democratic clamor for an investigation into the government's mistakes subsided, but Rowley's memo had members of both parties turning up the heat again. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle seized on the document as reason to appoint an independent commission to examine intelligence failures prior to Sept. 11, an idea the White House intensely opposes. Daschle says he will bring a bill to the floor of the Senate next week, when Congress returns from recess. The chairmen of the joint panel of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, which is investigating the attacks, said they will begin hearings next week. As the inquiry moves forward, Rowley is likely to become a star witness. Last week Iowa Republican Charles Grassley offered Rowley written assurance that her job won't be jeopardized if she cooperates with the Senate's investigations. Grassley warned Mueller to ensure that "there is no retaliation" against her.
In a star-obsessed culture, Rowley is a healthy reminder that it's often people who shun the limelight--strong-willed people with more guts than glamour--who force themselves to step up and speak out when everyone else is keeping quiet. She dresses simply and wears large spectacles that have a habit of sliding down her nose. She takes her lunch to work every day and often arrives long before any of her co-workers. "She goes the extra mile on everything," says Larry Brubaker, a retired agent and former colleague. "Coleen always looks stressed. She is very high energy." In her letter, she comes off as passionate and informed, and her controlled legal arguments are punctuated by piquant asides, dark humor and bursts of deep feeling. As her name rolled off the tongues of every politician and talking head in Washington last Friday, she remained on the job in Minneapolis and at home in a tree-shrouded cul-de-sac in Apple Valley, where she lives with her husband, four kids and 14-year-old Newfoundland. On Friday evening she made a brief appearance at the door of her home. "The situation is, I can't make any comment at all. It'll just be counterproductive," she told reporters from TIME and the Associated Press. "I don't want any publicity. The whole point is that it will be completely undercut if there is any."
As the Minneapolis field-office lawyer, Rowley had a supporting part in the drama that ended with the December indictment of Moussaoui. But she was ready the moment agents phoned her on the night of Aug. 15, 2001. Instructors at the Pan Am flight school near Minneapolis-St. Paul had phoned the FBI the previous day, reporting that a student with bad English had showed up asking for instruction in how to fly a 747. Federal agents arrived at Moussaoui's hotel on the 15th and asked for his immigration papers; when the documents showed evidence of a possible visa violation, agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested Moussaoui on charges of overstaying his visa.
With Moussaoui in custody, the Minneapolis FBI agents began hunting for information on the suspect's past. In the late 1990s, it turns out, French police had placed Moussaoui on a watch list: using London as his base, Moussaoui shuttled in and out of Kuwait, Turkey and Continental Europe, forming ties with radical Islamist groups and recruiting young men to train and fight the jihad in Chechnya. French intelligence officials also believed Moussaoui spent time in Afghanistan, and his last trip before arriving in the U.S. last February was to Pakistan. A French justice official says the government gave the FBI "everything we had" on Moussaoui, "enough to make you want to check this guy out every way you can. Anyone paying attention would have seen he was not only operational in the militant Islamist world but had some autonomy and authority as well."
The Minneapolis agents agreed. Within days of receiving the French intelligence report, Rowley writes, they "became desperate" to probe the laptop computer they seized from Moussaoui and "conduct a more thorough search of his personal effects." As Rowley describes it, the agents then encountered the first in the series of "roadblocks" thrown up by their superiors in Washington that, she says, ultimately scuttled their attempts to investigate Moussaoui. They wanted to obtain a search warrant for the laptop under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; under the law, the bureau had to prove Moussaoui was an agent of a terrorist group or a foreign power. In her memo, Rowley maintains that before Sept. 11, the Minneapolis agents had "certainly established," based on French sources and other intelligence, that Moussaoui "had affiliations with radical fundamentalist groups and activities connected to Osama bin Laden."
But officials in Washington disagreed. Rowley blasts the FBI for failing to team up with other federal agencies, such as the CIA, that could have gathered more intelligence to buttress the case against Moussaoui. But a senior Administration official told TIME last week that the bureau did go to the CIA "and asked for what it had"; in late August, the agency passed along reports from Paris that "this guy did have extremist views, but it didn't say al-Qaeda or anything like that." French intelligence sources concede that in the pre-9/11 world, explicit references to bin Laden might not have been made. Believing the evidence against Moussaoui was insufficient, the bureau supervisors rebuffed the Minneapolis effort to search the laptop.
Rowley and her colleagues continued to plead their case. Her memo rails against but doesn't name a handful of midlevel officials who "almost inexplicably" blocked "Minneapolis' by now desperate efforts to obtain a FISA search warrant... HQ personnel brought up almost ridiculous questions in their apparent efforts to undermine the probable cause." One supervisor complained that there might be plenty of men named Zacarias Moussaoui in France; how did the agents know this was the same man? (The agents checked the Paris phone books and found but one Moussaoui.) At another point the field office tried to bypass their bosses altogether and alert the CIA's Counterterrorism Center; Rowley says FBI officials chastised the agents for going behind their backs. She reserves her toughest words for a supervisor who repeatedly belittled the French intelligence on the case. Rowley claims that in late August the supervisor did forward the FISA request to lawyers at the National Security Law Unit, an FBIHQ office that vets warrant proposals before passing them on to the Justice Department. But the supervisor "deliberately further undercut" the request by withholding "intelligence information he promised to add and making several changes in the wording of the information." The resistance from Washington got so bad, she writes, that agents in her office joked that some FBI officials "had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen [sic], who were actually working for Osama bin Laden."
On Aug. 28, the NSLU turned down the Minnesotans' FISA request. Rowley's letter does not provide any specifics to back up the allegation that the supervisor altered or withheld evidence. (Only after Sept. 11 did the FBI successfully obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui's belongings; among other things, the search turned up crop-dusting information, a letter to Moussaoui from an al-Qaeda operative in Malaysia and a notebook that contained an alias eventually traced to the roommate of hijacker Mohamed Atta.) According to Rowley, the supervisor has since been promoted. FBI officials refused to comment on the tampering charge last week; Mueller also demurred, passing the contents of the memo to the Justice Department's inspector general.
Rowley admits that she is outspoken--"those who know me would probably describe me as, by nature, overly opinionated and sometimes not as discreet as I should be"--but her memo is bound to strike a nerve with other FBI agents, who have long complained about the careerist, risk-averse approach of the desk jockeys in the Hoover Building. It's hard not to conclude after reading her account that the FBI's sprawling bureaucracy is hopeless. "Career enhancement," she writes, supersedes law-enforcement concerns at the headquarters, which is staffed by agents with little field expertise serving short, 18-month terms and others so eager to rotate out to the field that they keep their heads down. Among field agents, the bureau's byzantine process of reviewing FISA requests is notorious. Says one retired field officer: "You send your application to headquarters, and they'll sit on it so long and keep it for weeks and weeks...then you have to do it all over again. It's like a catch-22."
As Washington's cycle of blame spun up again last week, the official caught in the blades was Robert Mueller, who until now has impressed many critics with his intelligence, energy and commitment to reform. Though the director did not comment on the specifics of the Rowley memo, he issued a statement that signaled he is serious about fixing his broken institution. "I am convinced that a different approach is required," he said. "There is no room for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts." One of his ideas is to create a new "flying squad" of terrorist specialists based in Washington--but longtime field agents, like Rowley herself, are appalled by the plan. In their view, anything that shifts more power to the Hoover Building will only reinforce the culture of fear and indecision that the hijackers managed to exploit. Rowley wrote to Mueller, "Your plans for an FBI headquarters' 'super squad' simply fly in the face of an honest appraisal of the FBI's pre-September 11 failures."
It's likely Mueller will have plenty more accounting to do. He has already been pressed to explain why the FBI did not investigate Moussaoui more aggressively; on May 8, he told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that the lead Minnesota case agent "did a terrific job in pushing as hard as we possibly could with Moussaoui. But did we discern that there was a plot that would have led us to Sept. 11? No. Could we have? I doubt it." But in its most searching passage, Rowley's letter lays out the case that the FBI made fateful miscalculations by failing to see a possible connection between the Minneapolis investigation of flight student Moussaoui and the hunch of Phoenix agent Kenneth Williams--posited in a report to HQ two months earlier--that al-Qaeda operatives were attending U.S. flight schools. Law-enforcement and congressional sources told TIME that both reports landed on the desk of Dave Frasca, the head of the FBI's radical-fundamentalist unit. The Phoenix memo was buried; the Moussaoui warrant request was denied.
In Rowley's admittedly speculative view, more decisive action might have enabled the authorities to put the pieces together in time. FBI counterterrorism officials continue to dispute that line of reasoning. They doubt Moussaoui was the 20th hijacker: there is no hard evidence that any of the 19 hijackers communicated with Moussaoui, and he showed up for flight school months after the others had completed their training. (They have a darker worry: that he was on an entirely different suicide mission and that his cell mates are still at large.) And the survey of flight schools proposed by Williams would have had a hard time identifying Atta and his cadre, who were done with school and gearing up for Sept. 11.
"No one will ever know what impact, if any, the FBI's following up of these requests might have had," Rowley writes. In a way, she's right--for every American, what might have been will be maddeningly, eternally unknowable. But Rowley has at least forced the FBI and the Administration to confront their failures directly and publicly, rather than sweep them under a self-stitched rug of wartime immunity. The congressional investigations may yet get bogged down in finger pointing and political grandstanding, but for now they represent the main opportunity to learn the lessons that could help guard against the next 9/11. Before Rowley came along, the Administration had succeeded in derailing such inquiries by calling them unproductive and suggesting that its critics might be unpatriotic. Last week a patriot came forward to help steer the country back toward the truth.
--Reported by Michael Duffy and Elaine Shannon/Washington, Maggie Sieger/Minneapolis and Bruce Crumley/Paris
ALLPOLITICS TOP STORIES:
|Back to the top|