Guest Blogged by Coleen Rowley, FBI whistleblower, TIME's 2002 'Person of the Year'
By late January/early February, 2003, I and other Americans were witnessing the Bush Administration's final and intense push to launch their pre-emptive war on Iraq, based largely on (what are now well known as) two completely false pretexts: Iraq's possession of WMD and its connections to Al Qaeda terrorists. My knowledge that Iraq's WMD was being exaggerated was merely what anyone could gain from close reading of public sources: the McClatchy news articles by Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel (who later won Pulitzers for their reporting) as well as a few buried articles in the Washington Post and Newsweek debunking the "evidence" being educed by Bush-Cheney-Powell-Rice-Rumsfeld et al.
Due to the Minneapolis FBI's pre-9/11 investigation of an Al Qaeda operative, however, I was in a better position to know more than J.Q. Average Citizen in regard to the non-existence of ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda.
I felt it my responsibility to speak out, and so I did --- or tried to --- to my bosses at the FBI, and to the media, including CBS' 60 Minutes...
Deja Vu All Over Again
The Administration knew how important it was to cleverly fabricate this connection and, by February 2003, they had succeeded in misleading 76 percent of Americans to believe Saddam Hussein provided assistance to al-Qaeda. Cheney would lie about 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta meeting with an Iraqi intelligence agent in Prague, while the FBI Director would look down at his shoes, knowing the FBI had documentary proof that Atta was in the U.S. at the time (and not meeting Iraqi agents in Prague). I also knew the FBI Director was under enormous pressure to keep his mouth shut and go along with whatever the Administration wanted, in order to keep them from splitting the FBI in half. In addition to its pre-9/11 lapses, the FBI's round-up of a thousand immigrants after 9/11, which they had touted for PR purposes, had turned out not to be terrorists while actions that did make sense: i.e. requests to interview terrorist suspects already in custody about second wave plots and threats, were declined.
Less than 18 months before, I'd witnessed one of the worst consequences; the 9/11 attacks unfolded after (what we were to learn was) a multitude of lapses, including Minneapolis agents' legitimate concerns being dismissed by FBI Headquarters. Less than 9 months before, FBI Director Robert Mueller had advised me to contact him directly if I ever had concerns of any similar problem. And just 2 months prior, I had been featured as one of Time Magazine's "Persons of the Year" for being a "whistleblower" whose disclosures led to investigation and numerous embarrassing findings that 9/11 might have been prevented.
The incompetence and dissembling about all the prior failures and mistakes had first shocked but then desensitized me. But the false info being sold to the American public that the 9/11 attacks were connected to Iraq was a whopper with potentially grave consequences.
The Media Go to War
Colin Powell's presentation at the U.N., seemed to mark the point where the mainstream media caught "war fever" and swung solidly behind Bush's plans. What few knew was that, in addition to Powell's PR home-run, Rumsfeld's assistant Victoria Clarke had leaked her 300 page plan of "Embedding the Media in Iraq" to U.S. media heads. The Pentagon Pundit Program was also established to insert retired pro-war military officers as talking heads on the TV News programs.
After some initial flurry, the word came back from the magazine heads that Iraq was essentially a done deal and they had no interest. It was a couple weeks after my op-ed was turned down that I remembered the FBI Director's stated willingness to accept critical information from me about problems and dangers.
So on February 26, 2003, I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail to FBI Director Robert Mueller. It contained all the points I could think of that the FBI Director ought to be warning the President about --- in a nutshell, how wrong and counterproductive the launching of war on Iraq would be to our efforts to reduce terrorism.
A week passed without any response from the FBI Director. I was starting to panic as, according to news reports, that first week of March, American troops were already in place, just waiting for orders from Bush to commence the attack. I could not watch another calamity unfold without trying, so at that point I called up reporters at two newspapers: the New York Times and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Philip Shenon of the NY Times and Greg Gordon at the Minneapolis Star Tribune (who now writes for McClatchy) were interested and both papers subsequently published front page stories about my warning to the FBI Director on March 6, 2003.
Although I had technically broken FBI policy by not seeking FBI "pre-publication review" and approval for sharing my letter with news outlets, nothing in my letter was classified or secret by law. It certainly was the kind of thing more suitable for a letter of resignation and way over my lowly (GS 14) pay grade but no one at the higher ranks was doing anything! They all seemed muzzled.
The morning the articles were published, the FBI's "Office of Professional Responsibility" (internal discipline unit) as well as Headquarters Legal Counsel and Press Office quickly engaged with my field office boss (the "Special Agent in Charge") to let me know I'd be facing disciplinary action for the unapproved media contact and publication. The reason I had not sought "pre-publication review" was due to time sensitivity. I was aware of the FBI using its "pre-publication review" policy to delay releasing other agents' writings for years, not due to legal reasons (secrecy of the info) but just as a way of controlling employees' speech, when it could prove embarrassing to the FBI. (In all fairness this rarely happened, as no employees in their right mind would go through the pre-publication rigmarole without some kind of monetary profit incentive.)
All of my colleagues in the Minneapolis FBI office were shocked at the news articles on March 6, 2003, at what they thought was a totally crazy action on my part. Given the war fever and sense of futility, even the few who were against the Iraq War disapproved of my attempt to engage the media. Some agents joined pundits in publicly denouncing me. Those in my office said they could no longer trust me and called on my boss to relieve me of my division legal counsel duties. (Only one, however, had the integrity to confront me directly and question me on the substantive facts and issues; the lack of justification for launching the new war on a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.)
Enter CBS' 60 Minutes
Amongst the calls from the media that ensued from my warnings in the NY Times and Minneapolis Star Tribune on March 6, 2003 was a request for an exclusive interview from the celebrated CBS's 60 Minutes investigative news program. One of correspondent Scott Pelley's producers at the time had worked on prior news reports exposing the Moussaoui investigation and I had previously met him a couple times; the first occasion was in Senator Grassley's office as I had waited to testify on June 6, 2002 to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Pelley and his producer flew in to the Twin Cities to interview me the next day. By that time, the FBI had reviewed my e-mail letter to Mueller (which had resulted in the articles) and they knew there was nothing in it that was secret or legally protected. The FBI, however, had initiated a potential disciplinary action against me for failure to seek "pre-publication review".
At that point, I therefore asked for the FBI's approval to accommodate the 60 Minutes request. After taking an additional day to respond, the FBI ended up saying they couldn't stop me from repeating the points in my letter but also basically read me the 'riot act' in terms of warning me not to do it. Before that happened, Pelley and his producer already tried to convince me to do the interview without worrying about FBI approval.
On the morning of March 7th, while their cameras were being set up, and I was trading phone calls with my boss and FBI Headquarters, Pelley tried to convince me to just go ahead. It was then that he divulged how Colin Powell's speech had been the thing that convinced him of the need for this new war on Iraq. He said he'd been very skeptical prior to hearing Powell but that Powell was persuasive and seemed to have swayed the bulk of the media. But, Pelley continued, that if there were solid arguments and information that weighed against precipitously launching this new war, the people of the country needed to hear it.
The FBI hadn't responded to my request by 11 a.m. and so I told the 60 Minutes crew I couldn't do the interview. Their camera team packed their equipment up and put our living room furniture back in place. It was almost noon and Pelley and his producer had given up and left when the FBI finally provided their weird response: half approval and half warning. Pelley had already returned to the airport, but when I called and said I could do the interview, they turned around and called their camera crew to come back and set up again. I had a prior commitment to give a two hour talk on "legal and law enforcement ethics" at a Twin Cities law school that afternoon but when I got home around 4 pm, 60 Minutes started filming the interview.
It was an interview from hell, quickly turning into an excruciatingly difficult and painful affair for everyone involved. Pelley asked the same or similar questions over and over, I suppose in an effort to get better or stronger responses.
I was trying to be careful and not stray from the FBI's "permission" which was limited to what I'd already said in the letter to Mueller. Canister after canister of film was loaded, used and wasted, capturing the repeated questioning which continued almost until midnight. There were only a few short breaks, making for almost eight hours worth of (thoroughly repetitive) interview tape! By the end, judging from their faces going out the door, it was obvious that most if not all of the tape was destined for the cutting room floor.
Nothing from the interview aired that Sunday, March 9th. Pelley's producer may have even been fired due to how much time and effort was wasted in the hours and hours of interview they conducted with me, especially since it occurred on a Friday night, less than 48 hours before Sunday night show time.
I never heard from anyone at 60 Minutes ever again.
The Cost of Speaking Up
Unsurprisingly, my career at the FBI was destroyed as a result of my speaking out against the war. It's a much longer story but the group of agents with the worst case of 'war fever' pressured my boss to make me step down from the GS 14 legal position I'd had for 13 years. In a way they were right, as the attorney-client legal representation aspect of my division legal counsel position required the trust of all the employees. I made a quick decision that the better part of valor would be to give them their pound of flesh. My stepping down, along with volunteering for the various odd shifts, out of town and holiday assignments, all night surveillances, and odd jobs no one wanted like "informant coordinator", got me through the next 22 months to retirement eligibility, albeit with a pension accordingly reduced for having given up one GS-level.
Over six years later, I find it's still painful to remember and recount --- like throwing oneself at a train would be. I've blocked a lot of it out. In all fairness, there were probably many reasons that nothing from the canisters and canisters of film produced from that painful interview ever aired on 60 Minutes that war-fevered week (which was about 10 days before Bush ordered the attacks to begin). But there are also lots of unanswered questions.
The significant investment of time and resources Pelley ended up wasting on my warnings about launching war on Iraq less than 48 hours from their Sunday night show time was itself evidence of the bit of open-mindedness the show's producers obviously retained even at that late date.
It would be interesting, if the tapes of the interview still exist somewhere at 60 Minutes, to listen to them now. Maybe I just didn't sound authoritative enough. A guy like Cheney not only had all the power but he always spoke in the most authoritative way, as if he knew everything for sure. How much was due to the fact I was a GS-14 "nobody" on a straight path to GS-13 "nobody"? But credibility isn't exactly the same thing as power.
I had been proven correct about the mistakes leading to 9/11 and the fact that 9/11 might have been prevented. My concerns about invading Iraq would all prove pretty much correct too (unfortunately). It's impossible to overstate how bad and how powerful the deception by those in control of the government could be. Certainly much of what I observed and disclosed was available for many others to see and say but almost nobody did. I probably wouldn't have gone to these lengths either, had I not witnessed and suffered through what happened on 9/11 and reproached myself for not having done more, even if it meant acting above my pay grade.
Did the effort at "perception management" by those in power simply trump reality and substance?
The Iraq War lead-up presented an unusual situation because most of the mainstream media was duped, self-censoring or actively helping the Bush Administration sell the deception. The media had most of the facts or access to most of the facts themselves. But only a small segment, a really small segment of reporters were reporting the facts.
Bill Moyers has since interviewed a number of them, including the late Tim Russert, in a program called "Buying the War". The stories by the small handful of news reporters who got it right were either buried or did not get wide circulation. Only a few people with credibility and the ability to get a bit of air time and/or get an op-ed published were speaking out: Scott Ritter, Joe Wilson, Jimmy Carter. So it was a classic "Emperor Has No Clothes" situation, but there was just no little boy who could yell loud enough. The 9/11 lapses had allowed Bush to wield more power over his entourage, including the FBI, CIA and other government agencies so they too were forced to applaud their naked emperor's march.
What's worse is that the trends towards 'perception' mattering more than substance; personal power and 'info-tainment potential' over accuracy; and 'selling' over objective insights did not end with Bush (and Karl Rove's) departure. Powerful neo-con columnists like William Kristol at the NY Times and Charles Krauthammer at the Washington Post never looked back and still frame most of the leading national news coverage despite having been wrong on everything. Even Paul Wolfowitz is regularly published. In other words, they are still selling their invisible garments.
I think it would be good to ask, if nothing else, for 60 Minutes to keep the tapes, if they still have them, to contribute to efforts by historians who will try, at some future point, to figure out how such a naked emperor was able to continue despite some of us who tried to yell.
Coleen Rowley worked as an FBI Special Agent and legal counsel for more than 20 years until retiring in 2004. Following 9/11, after blowing the whistle on failures at the FBI which led up to the attacks, she testified to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about endemic problems facing the both the agency and the intelligence community. In 2002 she was one of three whistleblowers named TIME magazine's "Persons of the Year."