Investigating the FBI


In the aftermath of September 11, U. S. intelligence agencies have come under criticism for their inability to piece together information to prevent one or more of the terrorist attacks that claimed more than 3,000 lives on that tragic day. Top officials have deflected these concerns as being the product of 20/20 hindsight. But a 21-year FBI veteran recently went public with her assessment of some of the structural flaws that led officials at the Bureau’s headquarters in Washington, D. C., to overlook information from the field, fail to share details about suspected terrorist activity with branch offices, and dismiss pleas to grant local agents permission to fully investigate leads.

In a May 21 letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Special Agent and Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel Coleen Rowley spells out what transpired in mid-August 2001, as her office sought permission from headquarters to search the computer and other personal effects of Zacarias Moussaoui. INS officials had arrested Moussaoui on a visa violation after local FBI agents learned that the French-Moroccan was seeking instruction in flying 747s. Checks with French intelligence about Moussaoui turned up ties to radical Islamist groups. But even in the face of desperate calls for action from local agents, superiors from FBI headquarters scuttled the investigation. They also failed to disclose to the Minneapolis agents that the Phoenix Division had earlier warned of Al Qaeda operatives seeking flight training for terrorist purposes.

Bureau further responded to previous missteps by centralizing decisionRowley’s motives for writing the scathing memo seem noble: “Until we come clean and deal with the root causes, the Department of Justice will continue to experience problems fighting terrorism and fighting crime in general.” Based on her years of experience, she speculates about the causes of the apparent ineptitude from the central office: Because missions in the past that have turned out badly have damaged or destroyed careers, many managers in the FBI avoid all “unnecessary” actions and decisions. “Since one generally only runs the risk of [being reprimanded for making an error] when one does something, the safer course of action is to do nothing.” The Bureau further responded to previous missteps by centralizing decision-making and requiring numerous rounds of approval for even the most routine tasks. The resulting climate of fear chilled aggressive FBI enforcement and discouraged the best agents from entering the management career path.

Rapid Response, Lasting Problems

Rowley believes that one of Mueller’s proposed solutions to the FBI’s shortcomings on these cases—developing a rapid-response team of terrorist experts based in Washington—will only reinforce the culture of anxiety, caution, and indecision that the hijackers managed to exploit.

Mueller’s plan also overlooks the perceptive way in which field agents did their jobs, despite roadblocks thrown up by the central office.

Although Mueller has repeatedly stated that the FBI had no way of knowing about the plot to turn commercial airliners into bombs, Rowley pointedly says, “This is not a case of everyone in the FBI failing to appreciate the potential consequences. It is obvious . . . that the agents in Minneapolis who were closest to the action . . . did fully appreciate the terrorist risk/danger posed by Moussaoui and his possible co-conspirators even prior to September 11th.” The FBI has announced a number of major reforms, but true change may not take hold until the Bureau erases the fear that has permeated its culture.

—Janice Molloy

Coleen Rowley’s May 21 Memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller; “How the FBI Blew the Case,” Time, June 3, 2002


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