Politics & Policy

Whistle Stop

The New York Times's latest antiwar "expert."

EDITOR’S NOTE:Media darling Coleen Rowley–notorious FBI whistleblower–announced Tuesday that she is running for Congress, from Minnesota.

In March 2003, Ramesh Ponnuru explained on National Review Online that there was a lot less to her famous memos than headlines claimed. The full piece is reprinted below.

Coleen Rowley, the celebrated “FBI whistle-blower,” is back. She first came to public attention last summer, when she wrote a memo complaining that the FBI had ignored her pre-9/11 request for a warrant to search the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been indicted as a 9/11 conspirator. (The memo was sent to FBI director Robert Mueller and to two senators; to Rowley’s apparent shock, it was leaked to the press.) Time magazine made her one of its “persons of the year,” declaring that she was a woman of “ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts and sense.”

Now Rowley, a special agent based in Minneapolis, has written another memo. This time she has eliminated the middleman by sending it to the New York Times herself as well as to FBI director Mueller. The Times has returned the favor by giving her memo page-one treatment (“Agent Who Saw 9/11 Lapses Still Faults F.B.I. on Terror”).

The memo, unlike the old one, includes no new information. It’s just a rehashing of an argument against a war with Iraq that is already in wide circulation: that such a war would set back the war on terrorism. All that is new is a deeply strange polemical twist or two. Rowley is trading on her reputation as a “whistle-blower” to make it sound as though there is something particularly authoritative about this argument when it comes from her.

Philip Shenon’s account in the Times at least acknowledges that Rowley “is not a counterterrorism specialist and does not have access to detailed intelligence about Al Qaeda and its planning.” But that is the lone skeptical note sounded.

Rowley’s principal concern is that a war on Iraq will inspire anti-American terrorism, and that the FBI cannot prevent this terrorism. These points are, of course, well within the bounds of mainstream debate and have indeed been widely aired. Rowley notes that Mueller made these points himself in recent Senate testimony. But he didn’t make it as emphatically as she wishes he had–he didn’t “connect these very important dots,” as she puts it–and she suspects that he has not made this point to the president. She speculates that his deficiency in this regard is caused by the intense political pressure the administration has brought to bear on the FBI.

But Rowley has a lot of other concerns, too. Here are a few of them:

1) Rowley’s reading of the polls has convinced her that many Americans believe Iraq had a hand in 9/11. She believes that the administration has fostered this impression. She wants to know whether the FBI has any evidence on this point. If it does, she wants it to be “shared, at least internally within the FBI.” The value of special agents in Minneapolis having this hypothetical information is left unclear, although presumably Mueller would be able to trust that it would not make its way to the New York Times without his authorization.

2) She thinks that instead of prosecuting Moussaoui and shoe-bomber Richard Reid, the government ought to have cut deals to get information from them. Shenon, incidentally, is misleading on this point, quoting Moussaoui’s lawyer to the effect that “the government has never attempted to talk” to his client–as though he would ever allow a free-flowing conversation to take place.

3) She claims that a war with Iraq will jeopardize our cooperation with European intelligence agencies. This is a legitimate consideration, I suppose, if one assumes that European governments are going to be nonchalant about the terrorists in their midst once a war starts. All the evidence suggests that they’re cooperating with us now. If European governments are going to stop cooperating in the event of a war, perhaps they have made this clear to Ashcroft and Mueller on their trips to Europe?

4) Rowley has some concerns about the color-coded security alerts now that the FBI “is no longer (or will shortly be no longer) in charge of regulating” them. It’s actually never been in charge of regulating them.

5) She is concerned because the “vast majority of the one thousand plus persons ‘detained’ in the wake of 9-11 did not turn out to be terrorists.” She was expecting a majority of them to be terrorists? Does law enforcement usually work this way? Rowley asserts that “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.” There was “undue pressure” to round up suspects, “particularly those of Arabic origin.”

Two things to note here. First, Department of Justice officials have always insisted that the daily-number requirement was actually designed to placate civil libertarians. Otherwise, the department would have been left responding to questions by saying, “Oh, we’ve rounded up an unspecified number of Arabs, nobody’s really keeping track.” That tack might have provoked some criticism. Second, Rowley originally came to fame for protesting law-enforcement timidity in an investigation of one Zacarias Moussaoui. Isn’t that, um, a little hard to square with her current encouragement of hypersensitivity about investigations of suspects “of Arabic origin”?

6) Rowley asserts that Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption is not consistent with Department of Justice policy for law-enforcement officers. “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.” Actually, it would be paranoid. But thanks for sharing, Mrs. Rowley.

7) Rowley spends several paragraphs explaining that the FBI learned a lot about how to handle Saddam Hussein from its dealings with David Koresh. He too was suspected of having weapons, and in that case too there was a debate between rushing to action and waiting. The situations are “very analogous,” yet unaccountably the FBI director is not sharing “the important lessons learned by the FBI at Waco” with Bush and his aides.

Rowley concludes by noting that she knows that her comments may appear “presumptuous for a person of my rank.” It doesn’t strike me as inappropriate for a citizen to share her thoughts on American foreign policy with government officials. If Rowley were to leave the bureau entirely in order to become a pundit, I’m sure there would be a place for her in the cable line-up. So I wouldn’t call her “presumptuous.” A fool, on the other hand, she certainly is.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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