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

Agent for ChangeOn a muggy Sunday afternoon this summer, Coleen Rowley’s campaign trail leads her a couple hours north of her Minneapolis home, to Minnesota’s resort district, where a star of the Democratic party firmament has come to help her raise money. It is just one stop in dozens of races around the country that pit big-money politics against grassroots momentum, longtime incumbents against unconventional candidates who are making it up as they go along.The Lodge at Brainerd Lakes doesn’t look too lodgelike; it’s so new that there’s nary a shrub between the entrance and the highway 100 yards away. Perhaps to compensate, the cabin-country decor goes overboard: The stuffed bears in the lobby are the product of actual taxidermy; the snowshoes, creels, and antler fixtures appear to have been professionally distressed.The 70-some working parents and retirees in this room have been lured by the headliner: comedian, talk-show host, and possible future senatorial candidate Al Franken. But everyone in this rural area knows Rowley’s story. She was a career special agent who told the world how her office, just before 9/11, tried to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, who trained at a Twin Cities flight school, and how FBI higher-ups thwarted the effort. The fund-raiser attendees also know that Rowley leaped to celebrity as one of three women whistle-blowers (the others were from Enron and WorldCom) on a cover of Time in 2002.Now Rowley is running for the U.S. House of Representatives as an "agent for change" — especially on civil liberties, privacy, and the war in Iraq — facing the GOP incumbent, John Kline, a hawkish war proponent and staunch Bush supporter. Even as a record number of women run for state and federal offices, Rowley is uniquely positioned as a challenger. A political outsider, she doesn’t yet smack of business as usual. She has serve-your-country credentials and national intelligence experience to appeal to the so-called security moms. She’s animated and warm, if no-frills, with a captivating speak-truth-to-power backstory. "People are hungry for this voice," says Becky Lourey, a longtime Minnesota state senator who ran in the Democratic primary for governor this fall. "You need to connect with voters, and that’s what she’s done: connect, connect, connect — tirelessly." Rowley stands an excellent chance of breaking through the electorate’s apathy, if she can get her message out.Rousing a CrowdRowley, 51, dislikes being cast as a hero. She lives with her husband of 25 years in a Twin Cities suburb with the bucolic name of Apple Valley. She has four children (ages 11 to 24) and one grandkid, and shoulder-length hair flecked with silver. A long-time triathlete, she’s comfortable in her trim, five-foot-five-and-a-half-inch frame. But she’s hardly imposing when she steps to the podium after Franken’s introduction. Speaking in a nasal Midwestern accent, she sprinkles her talk with epithets like "gosh" and expressions such as "just plain wrong." Early on, she told party strategists she’d rather lose the election than have to turn herself into a "prom queen."Still, Rowley’s job today is to rouse her audience and open their wallets. She’s begun to figure out the chicken-and- egg equation of money and popular appeal. A few months back, coming to preach to the near-converted in this small burg far from her district would have made no sense to her. Now she’s calculating differently. If — a colossal if — enough people make the suggested $50 donation today, Rowley can buy TV ads. TV ads would reach disaffected swing voters in her district (the suburbs and farmland south of Minneapolis and Saint Paul) who may not be wild about Rowley but who aren’t crazy about Kline either.And Rowley has begun to project authority. As she talks, audience members start to nod and answer back, like a congregation. "It’s not a lie," Rowley tells them. "The terrorist threat is higher." She begins to slam the Bush administration’s monitoring of Americans’ phone calls and bank transactions. This stepped-up surveillance, she warns, won’t protect anyone. It’s counterproductive. 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. 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. "Coleen was a career FBI agent and subject to the Hatch Act," which forbids federal employees from political action, says Roxanne Mindeman, a friend and lawyer-turned-activist. "The most political thing she’d ever done in her life was to vote."And those votes were mostly Republican. Rowley labels herself conservative, "but according to the dictionary," she says: "cautious, avoiding excess, and preserving of institutions." After 9/11, she flirted with the idea of running as an Independent. But her views continued to evolve, and by the time the Democrats came to court her again for 2006, she was ready.True to HerselfBoth parties were seeking challengers with personal wealth, celebrity, or a story strong enough to capture the public’s imagination. The theory was that Rowley’s whistle-blower status would play well against Kline’s pro-war record and give her a leg up in fundraising. The catch, which she didn’t fully appreciate when she signed on: Party officials expected Rowley herself to do the fund-raising. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee threw its weight and money behind candidates in open races or those facing more vulnerable Republicans, in line with its "Red to Blue" strategy.Rowley often found herself sitting at home hour after hour, dialing voters. By late August, she had raised, according to federal filings, $437,455, respectable enough for an "unconventional" Democrat but meager next to Kline’s $1 million-plus fund. Despite donations from individuals such as Franken and Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, she has been largely on her own. The one advantage, she figured, was that at least she could do things her way: no big campaign machine, no fancy doings. "I’m going to ride my bike all over the district and meet people," she told Mindeman. It was clear from the start, her friend adds, that "Coleen was going to be a whole different animal." Still, when Rowley turned away established strategists and refused to make over her style, complaints from party elders bubbled up in the media. Stories said that Rowley wouldn’t pose with her gun; her campaign had "a homemade feel."When she traveled to the Texas encampment of war protester Cindy Sheehan, state leaders were incensed. This past spring, they recruited a popular Minnesota lawmaker to challenge Rowley in preprimary caucuses. Rowley’s district rallied behind her, and the other candidate dropped out.Even as party insiders stewed over Rowley’s focus on the war, she was knocking on doors and listening to voters, sure that public distress over Iraq matched her own passion about it. As the election season progressed, antiwar Democrats elsewhere gained ground. Rowley was thrilled when Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, the former marine and a prominent critic of Iraq policy, agreed to headline a fall fund-raiser for her.Rowley did go further than she’d ever planned in capitalizing on her FBI story: A new campaign logo with her "Agent for Change" slogan is a stylized badge shape. Volunteers at events handing out Rowley brochures dress as secret agents.For better or worse, it’s not ambition, pride, or love of the game that powers this campaign. It’s more about Rowley’s girlhood Man From U.N.C.L.E. dreams, about the dots she thinks she didn’t connect before 9/11 and about her grief over how the government has performed since. "You’re not a whistle-blower once," she says. "Once you wake up to a political epiphany, you can’t move backward." She wants to win that seat. She wants to go to Washington.Is she having any fun? Well, it depends what fun is, Rowley muses. Then, wryly: "I think the funner part would be if I didn’t win" — and, as her campaign manager looks as though he’s about to have a heart attack, she adds, "I don’t even allow myself to think about it. I don’t think past November 7." Clearly, her education as a public citizen has only just begun.Beth Hawkins writes about politics, the criminal justice system, and children’s and women’s issues from her home in Minneapolis.Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2006 as "The Education of a Candidate."

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:07

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