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
They never got the chance, of course. While Moussaoui languished in jail, a critical opportunity was lost.On 9/11, Rowley and her colleagues instantly saw the connection between Moussaoui and the hijackers. When they heard FBI functionaries in Washington insist that the attacks couldn’t have been prevented, Rowley was furious. Part of her job was to train agents about the ethics of presenting their facts. One of her PowerPoint slides read: "Do not puff, shade, skew, tailor, firm up, stretch, massage, or otherwise distort statements of fact." Says Rowley, "I taught this day in and day out." All of this filled her thoughts as she worked to compose a chronology of events prior to 9/11.Five agitated days and 13 pages later, Rowley realized she had written something explosive, laying out how FBI dysfunction had caused it to overlook intelligence that might have foiled the plot. She addressed her memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, adding a few words to ask for whistle-blower protection. Arriving in Washington for her interview with the Congressional staffers, she went first to FBI headquarters, walked in, and wandered around the maze of offices until she found a secretary who was willing to let her hand deliver her memo.It took 36 hours for the memo to leak to the press. Congress called for hearings, at which Rowley testified. When the dust cleared, a wholesale reorganization of the FBI was under way. At her desk in Minneapolis, Rowley was flooded with e-mail from grateful rank and filers. But there were also colleagues — administrators in other offices and FBI retirees — who had harsh words for her.Not many critics or admirers would guess how much regret she still has over her actions before 9/11. "I feel I made a mistake," Rowley says. Reflecting on her role in pushing the FBI forward since then, she says, "I did contribute, but I wasn’t a hero." Her supporters wouldn’t agree with that assessment. Rowley’s version of the story may be too nuanced for a 30-second political ad, but it’s a classic tale of a whistle-blower, especially a woman. Rowley had risen high enough in the ranks to know what was wrong, but wasn’t entrenched enough in the hierarchy to give her a reason to cover up.As she tells it, Rowley was barely conscious of how powerfully her decision could affect her personally. Yet she had a lot at stake. She was the family breadwinner; her husband, Ross Rowley, had left graduate school years before to stay home with the children. And Rowley had yet to secure the pension and benefits that would allow a comfortable retirement, as she then imagined it, filled with travel and grandchildren. But she never hesitated, once she had written her message. She acted out of "love of country," she says, and for the Bureau.The FBI: A Lifelong AmbitionAt age 11, Rowley, nee Cheney, the daughter of a mail carrier in the farming hamlet of New Hampton, Iowa, wrote to the local newspaper to ask how she could join the crime-fighters on her favorite TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The newspaper directed her to the FBI, and she wrote to Washington. She got a pamphlet — "Ninety-Nine Facts About the FBI" — by return mail. "I was really excited until I got to the question, ‘Why can’t women be in the FBI?’" she recalls. "It never actually says why. It just lists the demanding requirements of the job."Years later, Rowley signed up to speak to an FBI recruiter on her law school campus. It was 1979, not long after Senate hearings on the FBI scandals of that era, and the recruiter was getting little business. "He had nothing to do," she recalls. "We talked for two hours."The next year, Rowley graduated, got married and passed the bar exam and a background check for the FBI, which had just begun training female agents. Her first assignment, in Omaha, was investigating white-collar crime; her next was on the organized-crime squad in New York. That job was high-profile, but not popular. (FBI agents in New York didn’t get cost-of-living allowances. Her family’s first year there, they had no refrigerator.) By 1990, Rowley had the seniority to transfer to Minneapolis, the first city with an opening that was closer to her family.In 2002, when Rowley wrote her memo, she was 48 — still two years from securing that pension. When Democrats first came courting her, she said she couldn’t leave her job. Besides, Rowley had never had political ambitions.

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