FBI, investigate thyself

Posted: Jun 01, 2002 12:00 AM
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 both well. 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.