Former FBI Agent and 9/11 Whistleblower Coleen Rowley at Saint Leo

March 04, 2010

Former_FBI An intrigued audience of about 120 Saint Leo students, faculty members, and area residents gathered in the Student Community Center Wednesday to hear what one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year for 2002 had to say in 2010 about whistleblowing and national security.

Coleen Rowley had plenty to tell them. Rowley traveled to Saint Leo Wednesday to be the final presenter in the Saint Leo’s 2009-2010 Distinguished Speaker Series.

Rowley is best known for appearing on Time’s cover in 2002 for her frankness in detailing the areas she thought her employer, the FBI, had made critical errors in the days leading up to the terrorist attacks of 2001. Rowley was working in the Minneapolis office of the FBI at that time as an agent-attorney. In the days before 9/11, an FBI team there actually had in custody a French Moroccan immigrant who was later convicted of conspiring with other known terrorists to murder Americans.

The team knew before the attacks that the immigrant, Zacarais Moussaoui, was acting suspiciously at area flight schools and considered him a threat. “He didn’t even have a pilot’s license,” Rowley recalled, but plopped down several thousand dollars for lessons in flying a 747. Because of that and other clues, the team wanted permission from supervisors to search Moussaoui’s belongings and computer. For reasons Rowley considers a mistake, permission was denied. Only after the attacks did the agency agree to the search and learn the suspect indeed had contacts with terrorists. That was one mistake, Rowley said. There were others at the FBI, and at all other intelligence agencies at all levels, she said, “interlocking mistakes.”

These were mistakes that, if prevented, could have helped avert or mitigate some of the attacks, she said. Then in the weeks and months following the attacks, she recounted, no one wanted to discuss what had gone wrong, what could be redressed, or how it could be done. Embarrassment kept people quiet, she said.

“I couldn’t believe that there was this much reluctance to tell the truth,” she said.

Rowley got an opportunity to speak about her analysis when asked to testify for a Congressional joint intelligence inquiry eight months after the attack. She also provided the panel, some senators, and certain FBI superiors with a copy of a 13-page memo she had written. She compiled the written document, she said, as a fallback measure in case she forgot to mention something in her oral testimony. In the aftermath, she learned some people in the FBI wanted to fire her for compiling an analysis that eventually became public. That didn’t happen (Rowley retired from the agency in 2004), but the threat underlined for her the desire for secrecy, and indicated to her that people were showing more loyalty to the FBI than to the U.S. Constitution, which they had been sworn to uphold.

Eventually, more inquiries did follow, including a Department of Justice report and the 9/11 Commission’s report.

But because of the delays in confronting tactical mistakes, she said, other missteps followed. During the information void, Rowley said, administrators made decisions based on opinion and other motivations, rather than on reasoning based on knowledge. Rough interrogation tactics, for instance, were brought into use after 9/11 by some agencies. Rowley contends in her talks that such measures yield false confessions and bad information, and so don’t make anyone safer. She considers more effective the well-established interrogation techniques that are legal and non-violent, but that don’t take center stage on popular television shows such as 24.

Rowley continues to study security threats and responses, and ethics and decision-making. She frequently discusses a design for ethical decision-making to help people through dilemmas they face when confronted with systemic wrongdoing. A whistleblower, she said, has to have reliable information that the wrong is occurring, or is about to occur, and that these actions will lead to serious consequences. Secondly, the whistleblower needs the moral courage to follow through. And, Rowley added, the whistleblower has to come up with the “how…You have to find the constructive way of dealing with it.”

Rowley also appeared as a special guest lecturer Thursday morning during a course on terrorism taught by her former FBI colleague Peter Wubbenhorst, now an associate professor of criminal justice in Saint Leo University’s School of Education and Social Services.

The classroom visit gave 21 students the opportunity to hear Wubbenhorst and Rowley discuss in greater depth actual cases that illustrate the controversies surrounding investigation techniques. All this will prove relevant to the careers of future law enforcement officers, Wubbenhorst told the class. “A lot of the issues that are going on right now––we’ve been there before.”