Editor's Note: You will remember Colleen Rowley as the Minneapolis FBI agent who 'blew the whistle' on the fact that the FBI had several serious warnings about the 9/11 attacks in hand before that fateful day, and failed to act upon them. Ms. Rowley has once again stepped forward with this letter, written to FBI Director Mueller on February 26, which describes in detail her concerns about domestic safety issues in light of the looming war with Iraq. This letter covers a wide variety of highly important issues, but foremost among them is the dire warning she delivers to her boss: "The bottom line is this: We should be deluding neither ourselves nor the American people that there is any way the FBI, despite the various improvements you are implementing, will be able to stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq." - wrp
Colleen Rowley Letter to FBI Director
Letter | Minneapolis Star Tribune
Published March 6, 2003
FBI Director Robert Mueller
Dear Director Mueller:
In June, 2002, on the eve of my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, you told me that you appreciate constructive criticism and that FBI agents should feel free to voice serious concerns they may have about senior-level FBI actions. Since then I have availed myself twice of your stated openness.
At this critical point in our country’s history I have decided to try once again, on an issue of even more consequence for the internal security posture of our country. That posture has been weakened by the diversion of attention from al-Qaeda to our government’s plan to invade Iraq, a step that will, in all likelihood, bring an exponential increase in the terrorist threat to the U.S., both at home and abroad.
In your recent testimony to the Senate, you noted that “the al-Qaeda network will remain for the foreseeable future the most immediate and serious threat facing this country,” adding that “the prevention of another terrorist attack remains the FBI’s top priority.” You then noted that a “U.S.-Iraq war could prompt Baghdad to more directly engage al-Qaeda and perhaps provide it with weapons of mass destruction.” But you did not connect these very important dots.
Your recent briefings of field management staff have thrown light on the immense pressures you face as you try to keep the FBI intact and functioning amid persistent calls for drastic restructuring. You have made it clear that the FBI is perilously close to being divided up and is depending almost solely upon the good graces of Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush for its continued existence. Clearly, this tense environment poses a special challenge to those like you who are responsible for providing unbiased, objective intelligence and national security advice to the country's leaders. But I would implore you to step out of this pressure-cooker for a few minutes and consider the following:
1) The FBI is apparently the source for the public statement that there are 5,000 al-Qaeda terrorists already in the U.S. I would ask you to inquire as to whether this figure is based on any hard data. If it is, rather, an estimate based largely on speculation, this can only feed the suspicion, inside the organization and out, that it is largely the product of a desire to gain favor with the administration, to gain support for FBI initiatives and possibly even to gain support for the administration's initiatives.
2) What is the FBI’s evidence with respect to a connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq? Polls show that Americans are completely confused about who was responsible for the suicidal attacks on 9-11 with many blaming Iraq. And it is clear that this impression has been fostered by many in the Administration. As far as the FBI is concerned, is the evidence of such a link “bulletproof,” as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld claims, or “scant,” as General Brent Scowcroft, Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board has said? The answer to this is of key importance in determining whether war against Iraq makes any sense from the FBI’s internal security point of view. If the FBI does have independent data verifying such a connection, it would seem such information should be shared, at least internally within the FBI.
3) If, as you have said, “the prevention of another terrorist attack remains the FBI’s top priority,” why is it that we have not attempted to interview Zacarias Moussaoui, the only suspect in U.S. custody charged with having a direct hand in the horror of 9-11? Although al-Qaeda has taken pains to compartmentalize its operations to avoid compromise by any one operative, information obtained from some al-Qaeda operatives has nonetheless proved invaluable. Moussaoui almost certainly would know of other al-Qaeda contacts, possibly in the U.S., and would also be able to alert us to the motive behind his and Mohammed Atta's interest in crop dusting.
Similarly, there is the question as to why little or no apparent effort has been made to interview convicted terrorist Richard Reid, who obviously depended upon other al-Qaeda operatives in fashioning his shoe explosive. Nor have possible links between Moussaoui and Reid been fully investigated. It therefore appears that the government may have sacrificed the possibility of acquiring information pertinent to future attacks, in order to conduct criminal prosecution of these two individuals. Although prosecution serves worthy purposes, including deterrence, standard practice in "Organized Crime/Terrorism 101" dictates imaginative, concerted attempts to make inroads into well-organized, cohesive groups. And sometimes that requires “dealing with the devil."
In short, it is a matter of priorities. And lack of follow-through with regard to Moussaoui and Reid gives a hollow ring to our “top priority;” i. e., preventing another terrorist attack.
4) It is not clear that you have been adequately apprized of the potential damage to our liaison relationships with European intelligence agencies that is likely to flow from the growing tension over Iraq between senior U.S. officials and their counterparts in key West European countries. There are far more al-Qaeda operatives in Europe than in the U.S., and European intelligence services, including the French, are on the frontlines in investigating and pursuing them. Indeed, the Europeans have successfully uncovered and dismantled a number of active cells in their countries.
In the past, FBI liaison agents stationed in Europe benefited from the expertise and cooperation of European law enforcement and intelligence officers. Information was shared freely, and was of substantial help to us in our investigations in the U.S. You will recall that prior to 9-11, it was the French who passed us word of Moussaoui’s link to terrorism.
5) I know the FBI is no longer (or will shortly be no longer) in charge of regulating the color codes, but I expect we will still have input. I realize that decisions to change color codes are made at the most senior level, but perhaps you can caution senior officials about the downside to alarming the public unless there is adequate reason to do so. Increased vigilance must be encouraged when needed, but the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces can easily get bogged down in attempting to pursue all the leads engendered by panicky citizens. This, in turn, draws resources away from more important, well predicated and already established investigations.
Unintended consequences like the recent stampede in the Chicago dance club (which initial news accounts reported to be the case) can also occur when the public is put on these heightened alerts. The terrorists win in such circumstances even without attacking.
6) The vast majority of the one thousand plus persons “detained” in the wake of 9-11 did not turn out to be terrorists. They were mostly illegal aliens. We have every right, of course, to deport those identified as illegal aliens during the course of any investigation. But after 9-11, Headquarters encouraged more and more detentions for what seem to be essentially PR purposes. Field offices were required to report daily the number of detentions in order to supply grist for statements on our progress in fighting terrorism. The balance between individuals’ civil liberties and the need for effective investigation is hard to maintain even during so-called normal times, let alone times of increased terrorist threat or war. It is, admittedly, a difficult balancing act. But from what I have observed, particular vigilance may be required to head off undue pressure (including subtle encouragement) to detain or “round up” suspects—particularly those of Arabic origin.
7) As I believe you know, I have a reputation for being quite “conservative” on legal and policy issues regarding law enforcement. I have complained loudly on occasions when some of our laws and procedures have-unnecessarily, in my view, hindered our ability to move boldly against crime. At the same time, I know from experience that the FBI’s policy on permissible use of deadly force has served the FBI and the country well. It should be noted, however, that the Administration’s new policy of “preemptive strikes” abroad is not consistent with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) “deadly force policy” for law enforcement officers. DOJ policy restricts federal agents to using deadly force only when presented with an imminent threat of death or serious injury (essentially in self-defense or defense of an innocent third party). I believe it would be prudent to be on guard against the possibility that the looser “preemptive strike” rationale being applied to situations abroad could migrate back home, fostering a more permissive attitude towards shootings by law enforcement officers in this country.
8) I believe the FBI, by drawing on the perspective gained from its recent history, can make a unique contribution to the discussion on Iraq. The misadventure in Waco took place well before your time as Director, but you will probably recall that David Koresh exerted the same kind of oppressive control over members of his Branch Davidian followers, as Saddam Hussein does over the Iraqis. The parallel does not stop there.
Law enforcement authorities were certain Koresh had accumulated a formidable arsenal of weapons and ammunition at his compound and may have been planning on using them someday. The FBI also had evidence that he was sexually abusing young girls in the cult. After the first law enforcement assault failed, after losing the element of surprise, the Branch Davidian compound was contained and steadily increasing pressure was applied for weeks. But then the FBI decided it could wait no longer and mounted the second assault—with disastrous consequences. The children we sought to liberate all died when Koresh and his followers set fires leading to their mass death and destruction.
The FBI, of course, cannot be blamed for what Koresh set in motion. Nevertheless, we learned some lessons from this unfortunate episode and quickly explored better ways to deal with such challenges. As a direct result of that exploration, many subsequent criminal/terrorist “standoffs” in which the FBI has been involved have been resolved peacefully and effectively. I would suggest that present circumstances vis-a-vis Iraq are very analogous, and that you consider sharing with senior administration officials the important lessons learned by the FBI at Waco.
You are only too well aware that fighting the war on terrorism and crime is an unbelievably difficult mission that will only become more difficult in the years to come, adversely affecting future generations of Americans. The extraneous pressures currently being brought to bear by politicians of both parties upon the FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies, however, only worsen the present situation.
I know that my comments appear so presumptuous for a person of my rank in the organization and I’m very sorry for that impression. A word of explanation is therefore probably in order as to why I feel moved to write you directly about these issues. A good part of the reason lies in a promise I made to myself after I realized the enormity of what resulted when FBI Headquarters Supervisory personnel dismissed the warnings of Minneapolis agents pre-September 11, 2001. I was well aware of the forceful but frustrated efforts being made by Minneapolis case agents and their supervisor in their efforts to get Headquarters to move. But since my own role was peripheral, I did not think I could be of much additional help. Since that fateful day of September 11, 2001, however, I have not ceased to regret that perhaps I did not do all that I might have done.
I promised myself that in the future I would always try.
I appreciate that you alone do not determine policy on the terrorist threat from inside or outside the country—that, indeed, you may have little influence in the crafting of broad domestic or foreign policy. And it seems clear to me now that the decision to attack Iraq was taken some time ago and you, even as FBI Director, may be little more than a helpless bystander.
Such an attack, though, may have grave consequences for your ability to discharge your responsibility to protect Americans, and it is altogether likely that you will find yourself a helpless bystander to a rash of 9-11s. The bottom line is this: We should be deluding neither ourselves nor the American people that there is any way the FBI, despite the various improvements you are implementing, will be able to stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq. What troubles me most is that I have no assurance that you have made that clear to the president.
If you believe my concerns have merit, I would ask you to share them with the president and attorney general. We no doubt can agree that our Government has a gargantuan task facing it of melding American foreign policy to make the world, and primarily United States soil, a safer place. I pray for our American and allied world leaders’ success in achieving this most important objective.
Thank you so much for allowing me to express these thoughts. They
are personal in nature and should not be construed as representing the
view of any FBI unit or other agents.
Special Agent, Minneapolis
WASHINGTON, March 5 — The veteran F.B.I. agent who exposed the bureau's failure to heed evidence of terrorist plots before the Sept. 11 attacks is now warning her superiors that the bureau is not prepared to deal with new terrorist strikes that she and many colleagues fear would result from an American war with Iraq.
The agent, Coleen Rowley of the bureau's Minneapolis field office, is not a counterterrorism specialist and does not have access to detailed intelligence about Al Qaeda and its planning. But she is a 22-year F.B.I. veteran who is intimately acquainted with the bureau's inner workings and with the thinking of fellow agents, including agents who specialize in counterterrorism.
In a letter last week to the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, Ms. Rowley said that he had a responsibility to warn the White House that the bureau would not be able to "stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq."
Ms. Rowley created an uproar last year when she revealed how in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks bureau supervisors in Washington had blocked Minneapolis agents who wanted authority for a broader investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been indicted as a conspirator in the attacks.
She said that many of her colleagues share her view that an American invasion of Iraq would result in a wave of new domestic terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and that the F.B.I. was ill-prepared to deal with the new threat.
In her letter, Ms. Rowley said she believed that the bureau was continuing to mishandle domestic counterterrorism investigations, including its follow-up to the arrests of Mr. Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the confessed Al Qaeda terrorist who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives hidden in his shoes in December 2001.
"The bottom line is this," Ms. Rowley wrote in her Feb. 26 letter to Mr. Mueller. "We should be deluding neither ourselves nor the American people that there is any way the F.B.I., despite the various improvements you are implementing, will be able to stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq. What troubles me most is that I have no assurance that you have made that clear to the president."
Ms. Rowley provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times, saying she felt she needed to publicize her views in light of a possibly imminent American attack on Iraq.
A spokeswoman for the F.B.I., Susan Dryden, had no comment on the contents of Ms. Rowley's letter or whether Mr. Mueller had read it. "While I will be unable to comment on personnel correspondence of the director, Director Mueller has taken a number of steps to make the F.B.I. a more flexible, more responsive agency in our war against terrorism," she said.
In testimony in Congress earlier this week, Mr. Mueller pointed to several changes that he has made in the structure and mission of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism program, insisting that "the bureau has no greater priority than preventing terrorist attacks against the United States — and since the attacks of Sept. 11, the F.B.I. has embraced this challenge and transformed itself."
He noted that the bureau had brought criminal charges against more than 200 terrorism suspects since September 2001 and that half had already been convicted. "The nature of the threats to the United States homeland continues to evolve, and so does the F.B.I.," he said.
Bureau officials also noted that Mr. Mueller has warned publicly that terrorist threats could grow as a result of an Iraq war.
While F.B.I. supervisors in Washington could question Ms. Rowley's motives in seeking new publicity for her views, many of her colleagues and lawmakers in Congress have praised her as a whistleblower and conscientious agent who has turned aside lucrative publishing and film offers.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Rowley said her letter could endanger her position in the bureau by angering Mr. Mueller and other supervisors in Washington. But she said she felt she could not remain silent.
"I know that my comments appear so presumptuous for a person of my rank in the organization, and I'm very sorry for that impression," she wrote to Mr. Mueller. "A good part of the reason lies in a promise I made to myself after I realized the enormity of what resulted when F.B.I. headquarters supervisory personnel dismissed the warnings of Minneapolis agents pre-Sept. 11, 2001," she wrote. "Since that fateful date of Sept. 11, 2001, I have not ceased to regret that perhaps I did not do all that I might have done."
She said she was worried by the bureau's continuing mishandling of the cases against Mr. Moussaoui, the only person charged in an American court with conspiring in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Mr. Reid, who pleaded guilty last year to trying to blow up an American Airlines plane over the Atlantic.
Specifically, she said, she was alarmed that the bureau and the Justice Department had failed to try to question either of the two about their Al Qaeda contacts, choosing instead to focus entirely on prosecution.
"It therefore appears that the government may have sacrificed the possibility of acquiring information pertinent to future attacks, in order to conduct criminal prosecution of these two individuals," she wrote. "Although prosecution serves worthy purposes, including deterrence, standard practice in `Organized Crime/Terrorism 101' dictates imaginative, concerted attempts to make inroads into well-organized, cohesive groups. And sometimes that requires `dealing with the devil.' "
"Lack of follow-through with regard to Moussaoui and Reid gives a hollow ring to our `top priority" — i.e. preventing another terrorist attack," she wrote. "Moussaoui almost certainly would know of other Al Qaeda contacts, possibly in the U.S., and would also be able to alert us to the motive behind his and Mohammed Atta's interest in crop-dusting."
Law enforcement officials have speculated that Mr. Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, sought information on crop-dusting planes in hopes of using one to disperse chemical or biological weapons.
One of Mr. Moussaoui's court appointed lawyers, Edward B. MacNahon Jr., said in an interview, "To my knowledge, the government has never attempted to talk to Moussaoui after Sept. 11," which he said he found surprising. "I would think there is somebody in the government who would be curious about what Moussaoui knew, if anything."
Mr. Reid's court-appointed lawyers in Boston refused comment on the issue.
In her letter, Ms. Rowley suggested that uncertainty over the bureau's survival was creating turmoil within its staff. "Your recent briefings of field management staff have thrown light on the immense pressures you face as you try to keep the F.B.I. intact and functioning amid persistent calls for drastic restructuring," she wrote.
"You have made it clear that the F.B.I. is perilously close to being divided up and is depending almost solely upon the good graces of Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush for its continued existence," she said. "The extraneous pressures currently being brought to bear by politicians of both parties upon the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies only worsen the present situation."
Despite her criticism of the bureau elsewhere in the letter, Ms. Rowley said that she believed the F.B.I. should remain intact as the nation's pre-eminent domestic intelligence agency.
"The combination of criminal and intelligence functions in one agency with the `wall down' is now the F.B.I. great advantage and certainly not a detriment," she wrote. "And the field agents I have known and worked with for over 22 years are as eminently adept at tackling sophisticated criminal and terrorist enterprises, requiring the assimilation of intelligence and long-term focused effort, as they are at addressing the shorter term criminal who-dun-its."