- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2002

Coleen Rowley is making a vital contribution to the war on terrorism, though not in the way she would have preferred.
Mrs. Rowley, you may recall, works as general counsel in the FBI's Minneapolis field office. In late August, Zacarias Moussaoui, an Algerian attending a Minnesota flight school, aroused suspicions within her office.
Moussaoui was detained on an immigration violation, but Immigration and Naturalization Service agents as well as those in the FBI who worked with Mrs. Rowley suspected he might be involved in a terrorist plot. Mrs. Rowley wanted to search the suspect's computer. To do that, she sought approval from FBI headquarters in Washington. But she was turned down unjustifiably, in her view.
If the Minneapolis office had been able to conduct a search, the terrorist attacks of September 11 might have been prevented. Here is why:
A post-September 11 search of Moussaoui's computer and belongings yielded the telephone number of the roommate of the terrorist who led the attacks, Mohamed Atta. What if the FBI had found out that information and investigated it before September 11? What if headquarters had put the findings together with a warning from an agent in Phoenix about the disproportionate number of al Qaeda followers then attending U.S. flight schools? Perhaps the FBI would have discovered that Atta had enrolled in a flight school. And maybe headquarters could have connected the dots suggesting a terrorist plot. And maybe though it seems a long shot that plot could have been foiled.
On May 21, in a scorching, 6,000-word letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Mrs. Rowley spared no words in conveying her view that FBI headquarters had hampered her office's investigation. (Headquarters personnel threw up "roadblocks," asked "almost ridiculous questions" and "never disclosed that the Phoenix division had warned of al Qaeda operatives in flight schools.") Mrs. Rowley also rebuked Mr. Mueller for public defenses of the bureau in which he said it had no prior indications of September 11.
Fearing her letter might have no effect inside headquarters, Mrs. Rowley sent copies to the intelligence committees. Fearing retaliation by the FBI leadership, she sought whistle-blower status. By that mystery of plumbing in political Washington known as a "leak," the entirety of her letter made its way a week ago into the public domain. You can look it up, at www.time.com. That her letter became public forced Mr. Mueller to respond to it and so far at least has helped ensure her continued employment.
Mrs. Rowley's great accomplishment is to compel someone at the highest levels of the administration to say it is OK to ask questions about the government's failure to anticipate September 11. Bear in mind that Vice President Dick Cheney in particular has characterized such inquiries as ludicrous, even "irresponsible" in wartime. But there was Mr. Mueller actually thanking Mrs. Rowley for her letter during a press conference last week.
More important, in words that deserve distribution in the White House, Mr. Mueller explained the good that can come from criticism namely, that it can help improve an organization, here the FBI. "We must be open to new ideas," he said, "to criticism from within and from without, and to admitting and learning from our mistakes."
Mr. Mueller actually admitted a mistake by conceding that, contrary to statements of his since September 11, the bureau had information in not only Minneapolis and Phoenix but apparently elsewhere, too that might have enabled it to find the hijackers before the attacks. Mr. Mueller also seemed to agree with Mrs. Rowley's criticism of headquarters' response to her request when he said "there should have been a more facilitating approach" to her effort to obtain a search warrant.
The question Mr. Mueller has yet to address and must once the Justice Department's inspector general concludes his investigation is whether the no-holds-barred complaints Mrs. Rowley made of certain unnamed headquarters officials are justified. If they are, it is hard to see how they could continue in their jobs. As Mrs. Rowley wrote, "We all need to be held accountable."
We all do and the "we" here includes the FBI director. Mrs. Rowley's letter has given Mr. Mueller, who started at the FBI on Sept. 4, the chance for a fresh start and thus, one must hope, a more effective and credible tenure.

Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.

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