It speaks to the magnetism of former FBI special agent Colleen Rowley that about 130 Santa Barbara residents would postpone their Earth Day celebrations to crowd into Victoria Hall on Sunday afternoon to hear her speak about how and why she came to expose the United States’ failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Rowley-who was recognized as one of Time magazine’s 2002 persons of the year, alongside Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins and WorldCom whistleblower Cynthia Cooper-was careful to say that she spoke up to help the FBI, not hurt it. “The reason for unraveling all these mistakes isn’t to blame somebody,” she said. “It’s to fix the problem so it doesn’t happen again.”
Her talk with ethicist and What Do You Stand For? author Jim Lichtman helped to a put a face to the a movement calling for a change in how U.S. intelligence agencies and other administrative branches operate.
Sponsored by UCSB’s Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life, the talk began with Lichtman having Rowley verify a story about how the ‘60s spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. played a role in sparking her interest in the FBI. Rowley, laughing, admitted that she as a child had written to her hometown newspaper and asked to be put in contact with U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. The paper re-directed her to the FBI and she eventually received a J. Edgar Hoover-penned pamphlet explaining, among other things, why women could not be FBI agents. Regardless of this inauspicious start, Rowley-a self-described “oddball” who applied to the bureau when her fellow law school colleagues refused-became a special agent after all, initially working in New York City, investigating mafia activity there. “Of course, we later had shows like The X-Files,” she said, perhaps alluding to her now-critical opinion of the FBI.
The majority of the interview, of course, was about how Rowley became what PBS news has deemed “a loud, forceful voice critical of careerism at the FBI.” Rowley maintains that her former employer-she resigned the FBI in 2004 after 24 years of service-attempted to maintain face when it should have been re-examining how its investigative processes could have missed an event so huge. Rowley was working for the FBI in Minneapolis when a flight instructor contacted her office with news that suspicious individuals were being trained to fly planes. That informant-a whistleblower in his own right, according to Rowley-got word to Rowley, who said that authorization to search the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui could have yielded enough evidence to have prevented the attacks altogether and convicted the conspirators. Rowley said her requests for such authorization, however, were repeated denied by her directors.
Following that, Rowley explained the personal confliction she felt as prepared to testify to the Senate as part of the 9/11 Commission. As part of her testimony, Rowley compiled a memo detailing the various ways in which investigators failed to prevent 9/11-a document she modestly describes as one she knew would “ruffle some feathers.” As the sole breadwinner in her household and the mother of four, she admitted that she feared decrying her superiors would get her fired. When the memo was leaked to the media, Rowley somewhat reluctantly became a national figure. “I knew enough to know we had to unravel all this,” she said. Even after her outing, Rowley said her superiors were reluctant to admit to their failings. “”If this is not related, it has to be the hugest coincidence ever,” she said she told her boss. Seeming to pick up on that, he responded, “Yes, that’s exactly what this is. It’s a huge coincidence.”
Moussaoui was convicted of aiding the 9/11 attacks in 2006. Rowley said he was the last terrorist suspect to be tried in a U.S. criminal court. Drawing on her experiences investigating organized crime for the FBI, Rowley said that was unfortunate as trying terrorists as criminals helps people to view them as thugs or mob bosses rather than almighty forces of evil.
The talk concluded with Rowley accepting some questions from audience members. The first, from a man who inquired about whether Rowley believed the United States government purposely allowed 9/11 to happen seemed to make her uncomfortable. Rowley responded by saying she felt the lack of communication between levels of bureaucracy had allowed it to happen, not any internal conspiracy.
Another audience member, who introduced himself as a former FBI agent, congratulated Rowley for what he saw as the courage that led her to blowing the whistle in the first place. The statement was met with resounding applause from the audience.
Lichtman concluded the talk by presenting her an official U.N.C.L.E. ID card and badge in reward for her efforts to strengthen the country’s investigative agencies and to fulfill her childhood dream of joining the fictional espionage group. Rowley graciously accepted.