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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Bureaucracy Is Hobbling the FBI, Rowley Testifies

Intelligence: Agent's letter put the bureau's Sept. 11 failures under a microscope. She tells senators 'roadblocks' stymie terrorism fight.

June 07, 2002|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Coleen Rowley, the veteran Minneapolis FBI agent whose scathing critique of her bosses has made her a hero, told rapt lawmakers Thursday in her first public appearance that the FBI's "ever-growing bureaucracy" has stymied the hunt for terrorists.

"We need a way to get around the roadblocks," Rowley told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in a two-hour appearance that ranged from folksy observations about a field agent's life to condemnation of FBI headquarters in Washington.

Rowley, an Iowa native who speaks with a heartland twang, acknowledged that she never imagined she would be thrust in the middle of the national terrorism debate when she spent three sleepless nights last month drafting a letter about missteps in the FBI's handling of suspected "20th hijacker" Zacarias Moussaoui.

But by Thursday, as she told her story publicly for the first time after nearly two weeks in seclusion, she had become the darling of FBI-bashers demanding top-to-bottom changes in the embattled bureau.

Rowley, 47, has had private audiences this week with senators and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III. Justice Department investigators probing intelligence failures surrounding Sept. 11 are waiting to hear her allegations, and hundreds of current and former FBI agents have e-mailed and called her with words of support for giving voice to frustrations many said they shared.

Rowley was mobbed by photographers as she took her seat at the witness table in one of the Senate's ornate hearing rooms, where she was fawned over by lawmakers.

"Agent Rowley is a patriotic American who had the courage to put truth first and raise critical but important questions about how the FBI handled a terrorist case before the attacks, and about the FBI's cultural problems," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

During the hearing, senators wanted her input on everything from "careerism" and computer woes at the FBI to President Bush's plans to restructure homeland security.

Rowley, a 21-year veteran agent who also serves as general counsel in the FBI's Minneapolis field office, begged off commenting about some of the bigger topics that went beyond her pay grade. But she was anxious to lay the blame for investigative missteps on bureaucratic ineptitude.

A "don't-rock-the-boat" mentality has stifled aggressive police work, she said, and a reorganization plan unveiled last week in Washington to add still more levels of oversight to the FBI's nine-layer counter-terrorism bureaucracy threatens more of the same.

"Why create more [layers]? It's not going to be an answer," she said.

In her now-famous May 21 letter to Mueller, Rowley complained that after Moussaoui was picked up on an immigration violation in August because of his suspicious activities at a flight school, FBI agents in Minneapolis strongly suspected that he was a terrorist. But their efforts to get a secret intelligence warrant to search his belongings and laptop computer were rebuffed by FBI supervisors in Washington who did not think they had a strong enough case, she said.

A later search of Moussaoui's computer and other items produced a flight-simulation program, information about crop-dusters and other suspicious material. Authorities now believe he was meant to be the "20th hijacker" in the strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and he is facing the death penalty on conspiracy and terrorism charges in connection with the attacks.

A few hours before Rowley's testimony, Mueller sat at the same hearing room table, but his appearance drew a much harsher welcome, as members of the judiciary panel grilled him about allegations contained in Rowley's letter and questioned his response to it.

Mueller, who began his job at the FBI a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, said he did not want to second-guess the earlier decision by FBI headquarters not to seek a warrant against Moussaoui.

But Mueller acknowledged that mistakes were made in the case--including the failure to consider it side-by-side with a warning weeks earlier from a Phoenix agent about suspicious Middle Eastern flight students.

Mueller said he already has changed the system for reviews of such warrants, and that an FBI lawyer believed that, had the Phoenix memo been considered along with the Minneapolis case, "it would have made a difference" in the decision on whether to seek a warrant against Moussaoui.

Indeed, several senators said the FBI's performance last summer may have been disastrous.

"Had the FBI been totally alert and had the FBI used its current capabilities to the best of its ability, there was at least a very good chance that the terrorist plot could have been uncovered," said Sen. Herbert Kohl (D-Wis.).

Mueller--whom the Wall Street Journal said last week should resign--received votes of confidence from several senators, and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the former San Francisco prosecutor that she sympathized with him.

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