September/October 2004
Agent Coleen Rowley, FBI                                  
Interviewed August 2004 via email from Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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FBI Whistleblower
9-11 and Terrorism:  Speaking Truth to Power
© Copyright 2001-2014. Pamela Trudo. All rights reserved.

[Note: The opinions within the interview are the personal opinions of Coleen Rowley and not of the FBI.]

Q: What is your background?    

I grew up in a small town in northeast Iowa, graduating valedictorian of my high school class.  I thereafter obtained a B.A. degree in French from Wartburg College, Waverly, Iowa, graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1977.  I attended the College of Law at the University of Iowa and graduated with honors in 1980, also passing the Iowa Bar Exam that summer.

In January of 1981, I was appointed a Special Agent with the FBI and initially served in the Omaha, Nebraska and Jackson, Mississippi Divisions.  In 1984 I was assigned to the New York Office and for about 7 years, I worked on Italian Organized Crime (specifically the Colombo Family of the LCN) and Sicilian heroin drug investigations (some of the latter "Pizza Connection" cases).  During this time I also had the opportunity to further my language proficiency in Italian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and to serve three separate Temporary Duty Assignments as an Assistant Legal Attache in the Paris, France Embassy and Montreal Consulate. 

In 1990 I received an "Office of Preference" transfer to Minneapolis where I assumed the duties of Principal Legal Advisor (now known as "Chief Division Counsel") which entailed oversight of the Freedom of Information, Forfeiture, Victim-Witness and the Community Outreach Programs as well as providing regular legal training to FBI Agents of the Division and some outside police training.

In April, 2003, following an unsuccessful and highly criticized attempt to warn the Director and other administration officials about the dangers of launching the war in Iraq, I "stepped down" from this (GS-14) legal position to go back to being a (GS-13) FBI Special Agent.  I have also begun to speak publicly on the topic of ethics and ethical decision-making to various groups, ranging from school children and business people to lawyers.

In 1984 I set the two mile record in the FBI for female Special Agents (11 minutes 49 seconds) and I am now an avid triathlete.

I am married and my husband and I have four children ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

Q:  You stated in your now famous May 2002 memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller that working for the FBI was your dream job ever since you wrote to the agency as a fifth grader and received the 100 Facts About the FBI.  What was it about the FBI that fascinated you?  And, has the twenty-three year experience lived up to your expectation?

My interest was originally sparked from my favorite television show, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  At 11 or 12, I didn’t fully understand the spy plot of that show, but grasped enough to know that it would be so cool to be like Robert Vaughn and Illya Kuryakin and so I wrote to our local newspaper’s question/answer column asking how I could contact “U.N.C.L.E.” because I wanted to join that good guy - spy group when I grew up. They wrote back that no such organization actually existed but that in the United States, we had something similar, the FBI, and they gave me the FBI’s address.  So I turned around and wrote to the FBI for information.  The FBI sent me their “100 Facts” booklet (actually I think it was called “99 Facts”) which was written in question and answer form and was the FBI’s standard recruitment pamphlet used over at least a 20 year period.  Question 60 something (I don’t remember exactly the number but I remember it was buried in the middle somewhere), was a question, phrased in the negative, like, “Why can’t women become FBI agents?”  There followed an elaborate, creatively written explanation about the job being too difficult/taxing (for women) and something about FBI agents having to have the ability to “dominate any situation they may confront.”  (It was apparently understood that women were incapable of this.)  I remember reading this “fact” potentially standing in the way of my career aspirations and thinking, “how stupid, this will have to change by the time I grow up.”  In re-reading the Hoover vintage literature about the proper, very limited roles of women in the FBI (i.e. steno or secretary), (which I’ve obtained copies of) with women now doing almost every dangerous, difficult job that exists in this country, it’s amazing how stupid and contrived the FBI’s explanation was.  One of Hoover’s poor minions obviously had to exhaust a lot of creative juices for nothing because a few short months after the last great elaborate rationale for keeping women out was written, Hoover died (in 1972), and the FBI was forced to do the unthinkable: to begin accepting women as FBI agents.

Other than this one cloud, I was absolutely enthralled, however, by the other information in the pamphlet about the FBI which inspired me to get my six best friends to form a 5th grade spy club (we called it “World Organization of Secret Spies”).  We each picked cool undercover names like “Tuesday West,” “Nicky Slate” and “April Flower,” made up W.O.S.S. business cards, and on Saturday afternoons, I made everyone memorize our color codes.  We were way ahead of Tom Ridge,- I remember that “red” meant danger.  One of these days, I hope to write a book about the WOSS years (it was so good it lasted into 6th grade, right up to our first boy-girl party). 

Suffice it to say that the germ of an FBI career was planted in my brain at an early age.  In college, however, I majored in French, entailing two lengthy sojourns in France and European travel.  In law school, I kind of specialized in international law and even spent a summer attending the World Court’s private and public law sessions at The Hague, Netherlands.  My early love of travel and language translated into the idea of pursuing a career in the Foreign Service and I ended up pursuing that also, taking their very difficult entrance test three times, and passing twice.  At the end of law school, I was being processed simultaneously for both the FBI and the Foreign Service, but was a little further ahead with the FBI.  The FBI recruiter talked me out of going to my second Foreign Service interview and that’s the way I ended up in the FBI. 

I can’t say I’ve been disappointed with what will hopefully turn out to be a 24 year FBI career by the time I (hope to) retire at the end of 2004.  Essentially there’s not too many jobs with a mission more important than what I’ve always interpreted to be the FBI’s mission of simply “catching the bad guys.”  Even better than solving a crime after it has occurred and getting justice for the victims and society, is/was (admittedly those far rarer occasions) when we were able to recover a kidnap victim or prevent a violent crime like a Mafia hit or a bank robbery from occurring.   I helped out with some of the Mafia investigations in the 1980’s that ended up making serious dents into the up-to-then dominant criminal enterprise in New York City. 

Of course, real life is always very different from illusions/expectations based on TV portrayals. At one time I had developed a speech for young people, (more informative than strictly recruiting) which, ala Letterman, I entitled the “Ten Biggest Media Myths About the FBI.”  The biggest fallacy that people get based on TV, even the documentary type pieces based on real cases, is that investigations are fast-moving and exciting all the time.  That’s because, if they were to show all the boring, pain-staking work that goes on, sometimes for years, in order to make inroads into a case, no one in their right mind would watch.  So Hollywood, even when they use a true story, takes all the boring parts out and condenses what is, many times in real life, a two or three year investigation into 40 minutes or so.  By contrast, for example, I spent the better part of two years in New York with ear phones on, just transcribing our (legally) intercepted conversations between Mafiosi into something that would be as close to accurate as possible and could be played in court to effectively convince juries of the bad guys’ guilt.  Many times, I had to listen to the taped sentences repeatedly (especially when two or three guys were talking at the same time) to get it right.  Needless to say this is not the scene where Illya Kuryakin runs down an alley deftly dodging the bad guys’ bullets, nor the stuff movies are ever made of.

Q:  If the FBI was your career goal, why did you attend law school?  How was your law school experience?

I went to law school after college as kind of a last resort without ever really wanting to become a real lawyer.  Remember, my major was French, and there’s not a whole lot that leads to except teaching or grad school.  I decided that after being assigned to read  “Madame Bovary” (one of the literary works that the French are obviously most proud of) three times during the prior 7 years of French studies, there wasn’t much more I could get out of that pursuit.  I also didn’t have much aptitude or passion for teaching and decided to risk foregoing the highly recommended, almost automatic student teaching stint, if for no other reason than to serve as a fallback.  I was one year too young to join the FBI (besides the fact that the FBI had managed to hire only a handful of females in those first four years since Hoover’s death) and I had (narrowly) failed to pass the foreign service exam (on that first try) just out of college.  I was waitressing for 90 cents an hour.  One of my jobs at this one German restaurant was to pack shaved ice around 20 some bowls of food on a buffet table.  It took me a couple hours every morning at the end of which my fingers were half frozen.  I ended up waitressing in a total of three very different restaurants but they were all extremely hard work and I was never very good at it.  I could lift the heaviest trays and clear more dishes than almost anyone but it seemed no one tipped for that kind of thing.   So the law school idea appeared as a pretty good option, if for no reason than it would give me another three years to figure out what to do.  

Like college, my law studies at the University of Iowa were almost entirely financed  through scholarships and other financial aid.  Law school is/was great for developing better reading, analytical and writing skills even for those who don’t want to become lawyers per se.  I decided to pursue the international law angle in hopes of bettering my chances of getting into the Foreign Service, the FBI, or a similar type job.

Q:  What prompted you to write the May 2002 memo to FBI Director Mueller?

A:  I began writing what turned into my May 21, 2002 letter to Director Mueller a few days before I was called to be interviewed by the “Special Staff” of the Joint Intelligence Committee of Congress essentially in an effort to jot down all of the facts and points that I was privy to so that I would not forget anything during the interview.  Once I got most of it on paper, it turned into a letter to the Director.  I decided it also ought to go to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility since I thought the mistakes were serious enough that they ought to be further investigated/analyzed.  The day before I flew to Washington D.C. for the interview, I added two senators to be copied (Shelby and Feinstein) that I knew were on the Committee because I was afraid some filtering could occur due to some of the “Special Staff” being retired FBI agents.

Q:  In the May 2002 memo you outlined your concerns about the shading of facts regarding what the FBI knew prior to 9-11.  If I may, an excerpt is below:

" The last official "fact" that I take issue with is not really a fact, but an opinion and a completely unsupported opinion at that. In the day or two following September 11th, you, Director Mueller, made the statement to the effect that if the FBI had only had any advance warning of the attacks, we (meaning the FBI), may have been able to take some action to prevent the tragedy. Fearing that this statement could easily come back to haunt the FBI upon revelation of the information that had been developed pre-September 11th about Moussaoui, I and others in the Minneapolis Office, immediately sought to reach your office through an assortment of higher level FBIHQ contacts, in order to quickly make you aware of the background of the Moussaoui investigation and forewarn you so that your public statements could be accordingly modified. When such statements from you and other FBI officials continued, we thought that somehow you had not received the message and we made further efforts. Finally when similar comments were made weeks later, in Assistant Director Caruso's congressional testimony in response to the first public leaks about Moussaoui we faced the sad realization that the remarks indicated someone, possibly with your approval, had decided to circle the wagons at FBIHQ in an apparent effort to protect the FBI from embarrassment and the relevant FBI officials from scrutiny. Everything I have seen and heard about the FBI's official stance and the FBI's internal preparations in anticipation of further congressional inquiry, had, unfortunately, confirmed my worst suspicions in this regard. After the details began to emerge concerning the pre-September 11th investigation of Moussaoui, and subsequently with the recent release of the information about the Phoenix EC, your statement has changed. The official statement is now to the effect that even if the FBI had followed up on the Phoenix lead to conduct checks of flight schools and the Minneapolis request to search Moussaoui's personal effects and laptop, nothing would have changed and such actions certainly could not have prevented the terrorist attacks and resulting loss of life. With all due respect, this statement is as bad as the first! It is also quite at odds with the earlier statement (which I'm surprised has not already been pointed out by those in the media!) I don't know how you or anyone at FBI Headquarters, no matter how much genius or prescience you may possess, could so blithely make this affirmation without anything to back the opinion up than your stature as FBI Director. The truth is, as with most predictions into the future, no one will ever know what impact, if any, the FBI's following up on those requests, would have had. Although I agree that it's very doubtful that the full scope of the tragedy could have been prevented, 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, just as Moussaoui was discovered, after making contact with his flight instructors. It is certainly not beyond the realm of imagination to hypothesize that Moussaoui's fortuitous arrest alone, even if he merely was the 20th hijacker, allowed the hero passengers of Flight 93 to overcome their terrorist hijackers and thus spare more lives on the ground. And even greater casualties, possibly of our Nation's highest government officials, may have been prevented if Al Qaeda intended for Moussaoui to pilot an entirely different aircraft. There is, therefore at least some chance that discovery of other terrorist pilots prior to September 11th may have limited the September 11th attacks and resulting loss of life. Although your conclusion otherwise has to be very reassuring for some in the FBI to hear being repeated so often (as if saying it's so may make it so), I think your statements demonstrate a rush to judgment to protect the FBI at all costs. I think the only fair response to this type of question would be that no one can pretend to know one way or another. "

You became a heroine and one of Time’s Person of the Year 2002. Were you surprised by the response of the American public?

Yup.  The surprising response was entirely due to the leaking of the letter to the media.  The amount of media coverage was in turn due, I think, to a couple of things, but mainly due to the timing with the stage having been set by other pre 9-11 revelations. 

Unfortunately much of the media coverage assumed that I had a much larger role personally in the Moussaoui investigation than I actually did.  In the letter I  had characterized it as a small, peripheral role but somehow that got lost.  In fact, it is and will remain my greatest regret that I did not inject myself more into the fray between the Minneapolis investigating agents and our Headquarters personnel.   Needless to say, this does not a heroine make nor does getting one’s picture on the cover of a magazine.

What doesn’t cease to amaze me, however, is how many people are influenced by that type of thing (i.e. publicity).  I can count on getting an entirely different audience reaction when I’m introduced as a “Time Person of the Year” as opposed to when I’m just introduced as a special agent of the Minneapolis FBI Office.   I recently spoke at a continuing legal education function on legal  ethics versus law enforcement ethics where none of the lawyers attending knew anything of my background other than that I was a local FBI agent, and I was very poorly received.   Other times, same topic, same speech, same me, but with the more flowery introduction, I get rave reviews.   I chalk it up to the Solomon Asch test phenomenon and people failing to think for themselves but wanting to conform to others’ pre-conceived idea(s).   In truth, there are many, many everyday heroes who, although not perfect, do things or have aspects of their lives that could be considered heroic.  Most receive no publicity or recognition except perhaps by those closest to them.  Many of those persons, on the other hand, whose faces and deeds are routinely publicized and/or otherwise receive public recognition,  are no better or worse than anyone else and don’t come close to what my definition of a true “hero” is.
Q:  My sense is that the act of writing that first memo made you recognize the importance of speaking up for what you believe.

Well it wasn’t exactly the act of writing the memo as it was the unfortunate tragedy of 9-11 itself and all of the errors surrounding the horrible event, including my own, that has made me recognize the importance of speaking up for what one believes.  As I recently wrote in a piece entitled, “What I Learned” published in the Minnesota Law and Politics magazine:

"As a critical thinker and someone in a position in the FBI to see red flags, errors and endemic problems, I had, through the years, made suggestions for improvement and raised issues about problems. I even considered it part of my prior job as a division legal counsel, a position I held for 13 years, to identify such issues and then seek appropriate solutions—but always within the chain of command.

Some of my recommendations were accepted and implemented. Many, though, went into the Bureau’s black hole and were not addressed until subsequent problems or scandal erupted. That happened, for example , with the FBI’s earlier failure to enact policy prohibiting sexual or social relationships between handling agents and confidential sources, (even after an agent murdered his informant after getting her pregnant!).

So I’ve learned the sad lesson that most organizations are resistant to change and have a natural tendency to want to cover up problems and mistakes.   Because of that, I’ve developed a test to gauge when the significance of an issue may merit going outside the chain of command or even outside the agency/entity.

In discussing these ideas with such diverse groups as NASA officials, nuclear plant safety and health-care compliance professionals—all engaged in risky endeavors, similar to the life and death ones involved in the FBI’s efforts to prevent terrorism, I’ve always been careful, however, not to paint too rosy a picture of the consequences for the “whistleblower” of doing the right thing. 

Essentially whistleblowers tend to be the little guys who have the technical expertise or the facts in a situation, but who don’t have much clout or power in their organizations.  They desperately try, often unsuccessfully, to raise their issue up the chain of command to a level where people have the power to do something. Examples include the lowly CIA analyst who, during the Vietnam War, found that General William Westmoreland and others were putting out lower enemy troop strength than actually existed in order to falsely project victory; the priest in the mid-1980s who uncovered the shocking scope of the priest-pedophile sex-abuse problem and then tried to get the hierarchy to deal with the problem; the engineers who tried to avert the Challenger and Columbia tragedies; and several nuclear-safety whistleblowers.

Many times, in their desperation, the little guys try skipping a rung or two (over the perceived roadblock) or even attempt to “go outside” their normal chain of command in order to get the attention of those they hope might be more receptive. In many of these scenarios, however, there are unhappy endings: the little guy is unsuccessful in convincing the higher-ups and either gives up or time runs out. The warning business—bringing a mistake or serious concern to light—is often a no-win proposition. 

There’s of course the adverse financial repercussions and retaliation which normally await those who bring problems to light.  But even worse, when a warning is attempted, it usually goes unheeded and the warner still has to suffer through the horrible aftermath. There's no vindication in being right, in those circumstances. For example, take the O-ring engineers who unsuccessfully tried—based on their knowledge of the predicted cold temperature’s adverse affect upon the O-ring seals—to get NASA management to postpone the Challenger’s doomed launch. They may have been right, but being “right” in such circumstances is inherently part of a greater failure. The poor “whistleblower” usually just ends up blaming him/herself for not having tried harder or sooner.

So why is it important to make the attempt to speak truth to power?   Because we all should try, even in the most difficult situations. Although it may not be apparent at the time, if you make the effort, you cannot fail."

Q:  You wrote a second letter to Director Mueller in February 2003 because you perceived that an invasion of Iraq would bring an increase in the terrorist threat to the U.S. at home and abroad.  Are you still of the same opinion?

Yes, unfortunately, I am of that opinion, (along with so many other counter-terrorism entities and experts including Richard Clarke and the former head of the CIA unit dealing with Osama Bin Laden), that the invasion of Iraq was a completely counterproductive step in the “war” on terrorism.  It was like shaking a hornet’s nest for absolutely no good reason.  Unfortunately I believe that we, our children, and perhaps our children’s children will be paying in blood for this stupid mistake no matter how intelligently we approach the problem from this point on. 

Q:  I read your article/speech regarding the Patriot Act and the balancing of civil liberties.  Am I correct in stating that your belief is that the Act itself is not intrusive if applied with integrity and oversight?

To greatly summarize, I would say that we have far less to fear, in terms of diminishing civil liberties, in the letter of the law of the Patriot Act than we do from a myriad of other initiatives in the “war on terrorism.”  And because security and civil liberties are so intertwined, it makes the balancing of civil liberties with the need for effective investigation an extremely difficult task.  My conclusion is as follows:

With the stated, universally-desired and generally accepted goal of preventing acts of terrorism comes a much greater potential for intrusions of all sorts upon ordinary, innocent American citizens, and especially upon immigrants and travelers in America.  While many of these potential intrusions are nothing more than that, just potential, and even the ACLU and other civil libertarians are careful to admit the same, care must be taken so that the potential is not realized.  It must also be recognized that any further terrorist attack on American soil in the near future that is somehow not prevented will greatly magnify the difficulty of accomplishing this balance.  (And if this occurs, if history is any guide, abuses may become more than just “possible” or “likely;” they may be all but guaranteed.)  The hope then of doing this right, to keep the pendulum from swinging so far back and forth, lies largely in focusing attention, over and above mere lip-service and assurances from on high, on the hard questions involved in the balancing of everyone’s rights and in concrete proposals for employing additional safeguards.  All of this requires free, open and informed debate with an eye to enhancing, rather than eroding, mutual trust.  

In June of 2002, I testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee about problems I saw with the FBI's bureaucracy, roadblocks and intelligence gathering/handling.  The final portion of my statement to the Committee was on the importance of INTEGRITY and concluded as follows:

"The final reason I can think of for the FBI to adhere to the highest standards of integrity is another self-serving one.  Since joining the FBI, I can't tell you how many debates, both public and private, I've engaged in about where the line should be drawn between the needs of effective criminal investigation and preserving the rights of innocent citizens.  The trick is to be as surgical as possible in identifying the criminals and those dangerous to our country's security without needlessly interfering with everyone else's rights.   From what I've seen in the last 21 1/2 years, I can safely assure you that the FBI usually does a pretty darn good job of this.  Although such debates, (and the last one I had was with a Minnesota criminal law professor just after passage of the Patriot Act), always begin with addressing specific provisions of the policy or law in question, they almost always boil down, in the final analysis, to one thing: trust.  It's hard to win the debate if the person on the other side simply refuses to trust what you're saying about how the law or policy is applied in practice.  The Government, in fighting the current war on terrorism, has already asked for and received further investigative powers.  Although it can be argued that many of the new powers are simply measures to apply prior law to new computer technology or (as with some of the modifications to the Attorney General Guidelines) are things that any private citizen can do, some members of the public remain apprehensive that the FBI will go too far and will end up violating the rights of innocent citizens.  It may be necessary to ask for certain other revisions of policy or even law.   The only way the public's distrust can be alleviated, to enable us to do our job, is for the FBI, from the highest levels on down, to adhere to the highest standards of integrity. "         

Q:  Have you seen Fahrenheit 9-11?  If so, do you want to comment on it?

I have seen that movie and, although I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it’s not really the type of movie one can enjoy, I thought it did bring up a number of good questions as did Michael Moore’s previous movie Bowling for Columbine.

Q:   The 9-11 Commission recently issued its Final Report.  The report stated that the attack should not have come as a surprise and that the most important failure was a failure of imagination.  Do you agree?

Yup.  In fact in my letter of May 2002, I used similar phraseology, attributing FBI Headquarters personnel’s failure to act pre 9-11 as being due to a “failure to appreciate” that a terrorist attack of this kind could occur on U.S. soil.  In fact, despite pervasive complacency, a number of other people in the U.S. were able to imagine such an event, just not the persons holding certain key positions. 

Q:  One of the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission is that the government needs to reorganize and form a counterterrorism center with a national intelligence director.  If that recommendation can be implemented, will America be safer?

I regard this as the 9-11 Commission’s worst recommendation.   Before going into that, however, it’s important to note that most of the Commission’s recommendations do seem to be in the right direction, for example those encouraging a more deliberate thought process, addressing the root causes of terrorism and suggesting a whole range of available fronts which might be used over and above the obvious law enforcement and military mechanisms; the need for congressional oversight committees to come together so that oversight is not a confused, diffused process; and greater attention devoted to homeland defense vulnerabilities.

I do have reservations about the Commission’s main recommendation for the creation of a cabinet level “intelligence czar” for several reasons, including the lessons gleaned from the pre 9-11 mistakes, the faulty intelligence debacle leading to the Iraq War and my own personal law enforcement experiences.  After all, who caught Ahmed Ressam, the so-called “millennium bomber,” as he tried to cross into the U.S. from Canada to bomb the LA airport a few years back? - (a low-level customs employee).  Who stopped the “Trench robbers” who for almost two decades, the 1980-90’s, pulled off one mega bank robbery after another throughout the nation with impunity, their last one netting $4 million? -  (a Nebraska highway patrolman).  Who interdicted Yu Kikumura, believed to be a Japanese Red Brigade member, as he drove an explosives-laden car destined in all probability for a New York City target in 1988? - (a New Jersey state trooper).  Who uncovered and arrested the only Al Qaeda operative in the U.S. to be connected to the 9-11 conspiracy? -  (two flight school instructors, and a  FBI and INS agent in Minnesota).  Who prevented a significant portion of the 9-11 attacks? - (the courageous Flight 93 passengers).  Who thwarted terrorist Richard Reid’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner? - (flight attendants and fellow passengers).  You know I didn’t have to think too hard in coming up with these recent examples of stellar interdiction/prevention efforts on the part of first-line law enforcement officers and ordinary citizens.  I would have to really rack my brain, however, to come up with an example in history of a cabinet level official pulling off any similar feat.  The bureaucrats at the top of government agencies and institutions eagerly take a lot of the credit for the good work of their agencies’ lowliest employee(s) and distance themselves immediately from the same employees’ mistakes, but in reality, the head honchos just don’t matter as much as they think they do.  We can keep rearranging the deck chairs of these directors, czars and other bureaucrats all we want and it might give everyone an illusion of accomplishing something, but it’s not going to solve much when the Titanic hits another iceberg. 

Even worse than causing misplaced reliance upon a solution that really is not one, there is the danger that the concentration of “intelligence authority” in the hands of one particular czar could further politicize and corrupt what, in order to have any hope of accuracy, must produce completely independent and objective analysis.  Richard Clarke has noted that of the 15 or so intelligence agencies, the one that was geared to independent thinking and not to spying or policy making, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, was the one entity that got it right on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  Additionally, one does not need to be a card-carrying member of the ACLU to agree with that group’s analysis of the danger of a cabinet-level spymaster in the White House quickly falling into the hip pocket of the president.

Q:  Did the 9-11 Commission leave any glaring omissions in its fact gathering or its recommendations?

I suppose it’s open for debate as to whether they could be considered “glaring” but the 9-11 Commission did apparently omit more than a few things including any mention of the FBI’s long-standing problems/issues with its translation services. 

Sadly, perhaps due to some of their own “lack of imagination,” none of the 9-11 Commission recommendations call for sorely needed reform of the Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), the key to enabling our American intelligence and law enforcement agencies to be as nimble as the terrorist adversary.  For without any statutory protection whatsoever of, for example, disclosures of FBI and CIA agents/operatives, how can we expect those in a position to know of errors to speak up so the problems can be addressed in a timely manner?   Unfortunately bureaucratic career incentives and the current message being sent by the high visibility firings of certain government employees (like, most recently, U.S. Parks police chief Teresa Chambers for speaking out about problems in protecting our national parks and monuments) is clearly to keep one's head down and see/hear no evil despite the potential negative consequences to the public.  My awareness of this perverse situation and the gaps and flaws in the current WPA law was gained through my own personal experience in disclosing some of the mistakes and problems that preceded the 9-11 terrorist attacks that kept us from investigating in a more effective manner and, ironically, paved the way to some extent for the 9-11 Commission’s work.  

On the civil libertarian end of the balance, WPA reform could also serve the purpose of avoiding real abuse of some of the more potentially intrusive investigative authorities of the Patriot Act and other new laws so that "we can have our cake and eat it too" in terms of balancing civil liberties with the need for effective investigation.  The current flawed law which does not even cover agencies like the FBI and CIA whose agents and operatives are leading the charge in the use of these necessarily secretive intelligence-gathering and investigative initiatives means that we're moving fairly aggressively into uncharted territory with respect to use of the authorities, but unfortunately a failure of imagination accompanies this march as to what necessary reforms/initiatives could be put into place at the same time so as to ensure that we're able to use the authorities correctly and as they were intended.   I'm afraid that if we don't become proactive on both fronts: the protection of civil liberties along with the more aggressive intelligence collection, we will just see another counter-productive pendulum swing down the road, something we obviously don't need at this critical juncture.  If we avoid addressing these critical issues now, we may put the public at greater peril at some future point. 

Q:  Anything else to add?

We must also recognize that despite good progress in many areas, not everything that has happened in the interim since 9-11 has been in the right direction.   The government’s post 9-11 “round-up” and intelligence-driven decisions to engage in torture or near-torture of detainees for purposes of interrogation, are perhaps just two of the more significant problem areas that have surfaced but which were outside the scope of the Commission’s (essentially pre 9-11) mandate.  It is incumbent upon us, as we proceed into the uncharted waters of an ongoing “war” on terrorism, to find and deal with all of the mistakes that have occurred and will occur, sooner rather than later, and ideally before they result in another 9-11 failure or an Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.  The process of prevention means staying a step ahead of the terrorists, not three years behind.  For anytime a terrorist act is thwarted on any given day, they just go back to the drawing board to come up with a way around the defenses or to obtain more terrorist recruits for another day.  In this attempt to stay a step ahead, we really don’t have the luxury of waiting years to get bi-partisan commissions so we can go back to our own drawing board to fix errors and do the job better.


Editor's Note:  This month's interview contains comments by Coleen Rowley previously published elsewhere.  These comments are highlighted in royal blue text and used with permission from Coleen Rowley.
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