Coleen Rowley: FBI Whistle-Blower & Congressional Candidate

She made headlines after 9/11 by writing a memo that blew the whistle on the FBI. Now Coleen Rowley is running for Congress against an incumbent. Can a mild-mannered Minnesotan learn to play political hardball?

By Beth Hawkins
Photograph: Photo by: iStock
She knows this, she says: She spent almost 24 years tapping the phones of mobsters and white-collar criminals, and figuring out how to use what she found.If you collect intelligence indiscriminately, Rowley says, itit’s often gibberish: "It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack — while you’re adding more hay." When she wraps up, she gets a standing ovation. Mission accomplished.By the end of this long, hot day, the Rowley for Congress bank account is richer — but only by $2,700. The election is 100 days away, and Rowley notes during the drive home, "If I had one of these a night, I would raise $270,000." The party’s kingmakers want her to have 10 times as much money. That’s "an impossibility," she declares, seemingly amazed at the stupidity of the system. "I have about as much chance of winning the lottery."Odds Stacked Against HerConsider, for a moment, the expectations placed upon a female candidate for national office, circa 2006. She must be accomplished, driven, and willing to risk whatever security she has won so far in life. She must be strong and assertive, but never abrasive. Polished, not slick. Her personal life should be nothing but apple pie, because some of her appeal stems from the fantasy that her feminine influence will help "clean up" politics. Above all, she must be able to tease a river of cash from wallets and pocketbooks. If she’s a Democrat — and she likely is, because the GOP is more focused on recruiting male sports stars and actors — she’s expected to help her party retake Congress. And, with the current Congress still 86 percent male, it would be nice if she could change the odds and encourage more women to run.In a rational world, much credit would accrue to Rowley for managing to be so many of the things demanded of her. She has reinvented herself almost overnight from a just-the-facts FBI agent to a public figure. She has learned that facts, with which she is so comfortable, don’t always trump innuendo. She no longer chokes on short answers and catchy phrases. She has even swapped her plaid outfits for silky pantsuits. She’s strutting her stuff — and asking for money.As Minnesota moved into the post-primary stretch this fall, it appeared that the pundits who had dismissed her and the media that had ignored her might have had it wrong. Kline began to campaign every bit as hard as Rowley, and the GOP sent in some reinforcements. He engaged in one debate with Rowley, at a state fair, but has dodged many other invitations.But the odds were against Rowley, the way they are against similar unconventional candidates, drawn from other walks of life to fill a spot on the ballot in a tough race. "Women are often recruited when there’s a dissatisfaction," says Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, which works to put women in office. "It’s a glass cliff: When things get tough, you get women to run over it."Blowing the Whistle After 9/11Rowley’s evolution to public figure from mostly private citizen began in May 2002, while she was preparing for an interview about 9/11 with congressional staffers from the Joint Intelligence Committee. The interview was routine. Rowley was still an unknown; her name had turned up in the reams of government documents related to the attacks. But as she sat at her Bureau desk late one night, jotting down notes, she was full of remorse.In the summer of 2001, Rowley had been working at the FBI’s Minneapolis office as legal adviser for more than 10 years. On August 16, Moussaoui was arrested after arousing suspicion at a Twin Cities flight school; he wanted to learn only how to handle takeoffs and landings, not how to steer a plane, and to fly only jets, not small planes. It was to Rowley that the investigating agents turned for advice on how to secure a warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings. Worried that the agents could be turned down for a regular criminal search warrant, thereby tainting the case, Rowley advised applying for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant. But Washington blocked the move, nitpicking at the evidence. Over the next few weeks, more than 60 e-mails flew back and forth between Minneapolis and FBI headquarters as Rowley agonized over how far up the chain of command to push. The first week of September, the agents decided to pursue Plan B: deport Moussaoui to France, where customs could conduct the searches.

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