THE FBI can use its powers to investigate potential terrorist
threats in America, or it can cover up its shortcomings -- but it can't do
Note: Lives are at stake.
So when FBI Director Robert Mueller classified a critical memo
written by Special Agent Coleen Rowley as, a spokesman explained, "not for
public dissemination," that sent a signal: Mueller may be more concerned
with looking good than doing good.
Rowley's chilling memo outlines how FBI headquarters
"inexplicably (threw) up roadblocks" and undermined the efforts of
Minneapolis agents to obtain a search warrant for the laptop computer of the
now-reputed "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui -- even after French
intelligence sources provided information that gave agents every reason to
fear Moussaoui was embroiled in an anti-American terrorist plot.
In addition, Rowley says FBI Headquarters "actually chastised"
Minneapolis agents for asking the CIA for any information it had on
Moussaoui. An FBI supervisory special agent "deliberately" refused to pass
on the French intelligence information, she wrote. The same agent stated on
Sept. 11 that any connection between Moussaoui and the infamous attacks that
day were probably a "coincidence" and directed Minneapolis agents to do
nothing lest they "screw up" other investigations. Later that agent
"actually received a promotion."
According to her memo, which was printed on Time Magazines's Web
site time. com, Rowley believes that if the right FBI agents saw a Phoenix
agent's July memo warning that al Quaeda terrorists might be training at
U.S. flight schools, there is "some chance that discovery of other terrorist
pilots prior to Sept. 11 may have limited the Sept. 11 attacks and resulting
loss of life."
I doubt it.
As an intelligence official warned me during the height of the
"Bush knew" feeding frenzy, "If you take a sentence in isolation and don't
look at the broader picture, you're going to mislead yourself." It's easy to
take a few bits of information now and say that it should have been clear
where the trail led. It's easy because newspapers don't report the hundreds
of dead ends -- for example, Moussaoui's laptop held information on crop
dusting -- and there are no headlines for the many pieces of contrary
information that passed over agents' desks before the world changed.
Rowley blames intelligence lapses on "careerism" in the FBI; she
sees a culture of officials so risk averse they won't go out on a limb --
even to catch a bad guy. Their higher-ups would rather shield incompetence
than lay themselves open to blame.
Mueller has to show that he wasn't sent to Washington to
perpetuate a cycle of flubbing and covering up. His calls for restructuring
the FBI would get a better audience if the public believed there were
consequences -- not promotions -- for poor investigative work. (FBI
spokesman Steve Berry wouldn't comment on whether the special agent was
promoted, as Rowley asserted.)
Field agents probably would like to hear that poor investigative
work doesn't lead to promotions, too.
Retired FBI supervisor Dennis Joyce of Folsom related to
Rowley's many references to savvy field agents fighting clueless headquarter
bureaucrats. Joyce noted, "Your chances of promotion were measured many
times by the car pool you rode in, as much as any ability you had."
Mueller should see the Rowley memo not just as an embarrassment,
but as an opportunity to put an end to car-pool promotions as he
restructures the bureau.
That change for the better would boost field morale. More
important, a no- nonsense appreciation for good investigative work combined
with a short fuse for bureaucratic muddling could save lives.