A Time Magazine Person of the Year Speaks on National Security, Secrets, and Ethics

February 01, 2010

time magazine After Coleen Rowley graduated from college and law school, she wanted a career in law enforcement and public safety, and happily went to work for the FBI in a Midwest bureau office. Ironically, she landed on the cover of Time magazine as one of its three “Persons of the Year” of 2002 for speaking up about critical mistakes the FBI made that may well have compromised the nation’s safety on 9/11.  Specifically, in August 2001, agents in the Minneapolis FBI Office became suspicious of Zacarias Moussaoui, a French Moroccan who sought flight training in Minnesota to learn how to fly a 747––without proper pilot training––and which he explained was just for “ego boosting” reasons.  If the Minneapolis FBI request for an emergency Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act search had not been denied, other 9/11 hijackers might have been discovered before 9/11.  Rowley wrote an account of where she saw the problems with the hope of helping the agency correct deficiencies and better protect America’s citizens. She found out there are sometimes career risks to telling such truths. Still, some applauded her courage. Rowley and two women who tried to warn their corporate superiors about unethical financial practices at Enron and WorldCom—companies that imploded in costly corporate scandals––were all honored by Time that year as “The Whistleblowers.”

Rowley is now retired from the FBI, but remains committed to issues of public safety and accountability in government. She will share her passions for these topics Wednesday, when she visits Saint Leo University’s Student Community Center to deliver the final lecture of the 2009-2010 Distinguished Speaker Series. She granted an interview to give the Saint Leo community a brief insight into her upcoming presentation. Her talk is free and open to the public.

Question: Can you review what has happened, from your point of view, from 9/11 to now?

Answer: Most people are now aware there were significant “dots” or pieces of information that, if they had been pursued and connected, could have prevented or minimized what happened on 9/11. But very few in the intelligence community and government had any incentive to tell the full truth afterward about how they had messed up. Nobody is going to say that “I stamped a visa for a hijacker,” or failed to pass on information, etc.  It’s just not human nature to come clean when there are so many, intertwining mistakes that contribute to such a tragic event.  So cover-ups often ensue after a problem and the cover-up tends to be worse than the original mistakes.

The Bush administration did not want any investigation of what had gone wrong.  When I got a chance to testify at the “Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry,” I wrote a memo to clarify the details of the failures I was aware had happened in the Moussaoui case.  I also delivered copies to the FBI director, two Intelligence Committee senators and to FBI internal affairs.

By serendipity, the memo got a lot of publicity.  My memo led to an exhaustive Department of Justice Inspector General investigation and report, about 400 pages long, that was issued in 2004. And indirectly it factored, along with pressure from widows and family members of 9/11 victims, into the Bush Administration’s empaneling of the 9/11 Commission. 

Q: From your experience, do we have enough legal protection for whistleblowers from employer retaliation?

 A:  People in power usually don’t like bad news (certainly including news of fraud, waste, abuse, illegalities or public safety problems) and usually don’t want to makes changes.  So the typical response is to fire the person who brings these things to light or makes a complaint.  The private sector was slightly better after the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation gave some protection to corporate whistleblowers.  This law was designed to protect investors from companies that might try to issue misleading financial statements but the law actually hasn’t worked out too well in practice.  In the government sector, there is supposed to be some protection in agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and others, but protection from job retaliation has rarely worked. In the 16 intelligence agencies, there’s no enforcement of whistleblower protection, essentially because it’s believed that secrecy is more important.  If agency management wants to silence someone, it’s easy to yank an employee’s security clearance, and there’s very little recourse.

U.S. citizens are the victims in all this, because they’re the ones who eat the tainted hamburger,  take the drug that hasn’t been properly tested, or pay more taxes for contractor fraud, etc.  There’s no way an average person would have any way of knowing all this. And as I said, fraud, waste and abuse is not confined to the government.  Corporations are much worse because they have a profit incentive.

Q: How do you view the recent case of the delayed identification of the Christmas Day 2009 airline bomber, the man who was allowed on a plane with a bomb hidden in his underwear?

A: To a large extent, the little bit of truth and accountability that did come out regarding the mistakes leading to 9/11, came too late.  In the interim, there were all kinds of wrong responses that fueled terrorist incidents in the world.  What we’ve done with intelligence collection is to open the floodgates to collecting more “dots”––all kinds of information about people is going into databases, but if you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s like we’re adding more hay and it makes it harder to connect the dots.  It would be better to be more careful and only collect relevant information. That’s one of the reasons why I think we are now potentially less safe than before 9/11.
Photos from Coleen Rowley’s website.