FBI whistle-blower is described as by-the-book lawyer

Saturday, June 1, 2002

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Coleen Rowley wrote her first letter to FBI headquarters in the fifth grade, sending away for a "100 Facts About the FBI" pamphlet that would convince her she had found the job of her dreams.

One of her more recent letters has caused considerably more of a stir.

In a 13-page memo, the FBI agent accused bureau headquarters of putting roadblocks in the way of Minneapolis field agents trying to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui a month before Sept. 11. Investigators now believe that Moussaoui was supposed to be the 20th hijacker.

Rowley's May 21 letter has fueled demands for a congressional inquiry into who in the FBI knew what, and when.

According to friends and former colleagues, the 47-year-old author of the letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller is plain-spoken, honest and self-effacing. Courage is a word frequently used.

Rising through the ranks as one of only a few female agents of her generation, Rowley has kept a low profile for much of her 21-year career, even though she had a hand in many of the Minneapolis office's biggest cases, including the hunt for killer Andrew Cunanan and the capture of Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson.

Though she served for a time as office spokeswoman, the suburban mom and triathlete with oversized spectacles mostly left reporters empty-handed.

Diverting attention

When she recently answered the door of her home, she told a reporter that she couldn't talk about the memo because she did not want attention focused on herself. "With the situation I am in, I just can't make any comment," she said. "It's very precarious as it is."

"She is not what you would call a rabble-rouser," said former supervisory agent Dag Sohlberg, who worked with her for nearly 10 years and lives nearby in the same city of Apple Valley. "She's not motivated by self-interest, so that gives the letter weight. She's obviously trying to do the right thing."

In her hometown of New Hampton, Iowa, neighbors recalled her as a strong-willed child, someone who declared herself a vegetarian in grade school.

"She was just a nice, nice girl. Everybody's so proud of her in our small little town," said Virginia Rigler, a neighbor from two houses away.

Rowley got a law degree from the University of Iowa before joining the bureau. She was transferred to the Minneapolis office after work in New York.

In addition to being an FBI agent, she is general counsel in the Minneapolis field office.

In her job -- her position remains unchanged since the release of the letter, according to the bureau -- Rowley is essentially the in-house lawyer for the office. Among other things, she deals with lawsuits and personnel matters and reviews applications for court-approved wiretaps.

Moussaoui was arrested Aug. 16 after managers at a Twin Cities flight school tipped the FBI that he was behaving suspiciously while taking flying lessons. Moussaoui is the only person directly charged in the Sept. 11 plot.

By her own admission in the letter, Rowley played only a small role in the Moussaoui investigation. But according to the letter, she watched with growing frustration as repeated attempts by agents to get permission to search Moussaoui's laptop were rebuffed by headquarters. Even intelligence from France suggesting Moussaoui had terrorist ties failed to win permission.

Then, in the months after the attacks, Rowley said, she grew more frustrated as it became clear the FBI's official stance would be that there was no way the bureau could have prevented the hijackings.

"It is obvious, from my firsthand knowledge of the events and the detailed documentation that exists, that the agents in Minneapolis who were closest to the action and in the best position to gauge the situation locally, did fully appreciate the terrorist risk/danger posed by Moussaoui and his possible co-conspirators even prior to September 11th," she wrote.

Call to CIA

According to the letter, local agents eventually became so frustrated with FBI headquarters that they broke the chain of command and notified the CIA about the suspect before Sept. 11.

On Wednesday, Mueller, under pressure for weeks because of the missed clues, suggested for the first time that investigators might have uncovered the plot if they had more doggedly pursued leads.

David Cid, a former Minneapolis FBI supervisory agent who worked with Rowley for seven years, described her as someone with a rare combination of brains and guts in equal quantities.

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