FBI Whistleblower addresses educators on ethics

FBI Whistleblower addresses educators on ethics
Sat Nov 15 17:23:20 2003

FBI Whistleblower addresses educators on ethics and integrity

Saturday, November 15, 2003
FBI agent calls for integrity
By DAVID HENCH, Portland Press Herald Writer
Copyright 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Coleen Rowley, an FBI agent from Minnesota, speaks to the media Friday at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. Rowley was in town to address a meeting of the Maine Higher Education Council.

The FBI agent credited with exposing her agency's lapses that preceded the Sept. 11 attacks told an influential group of Maine educators Friday that the key to keeping the nation strong in its war on terrorism isn't advanced technology or new investigative powers, but integrity.

Coleen Rowley told a gathering of college and university presidents that behaving in an ethical manner and publicly discussing mistakes are essential if institutions are to maintain the public's trust.

"Making the country strong from within is as important as finding all the al-Qaidas out there," said Rowley, a 22-year veteran of the FBI. "We are all flying flags . . . but we aren't doing the things we need to do in this country to make us stronger."

One of those steps, she said, is insisting on integrity and the accountability that comes with it, whether in corporate boardrooms, government agencies or gradeschool classrooms. When someone learns of mistakes or problems, they have an obligation to speak out, she said.

Institutions like the FBI need to be up front with the public about shortcomings, Rowley told a meeting of the Maine Higher Education Council at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport.

"When we make a mistake, we have to work to unravel all of the factors that went into this. We need to identify mistakes in order to learn from them and improve," Rowley said. "By publicly airing it, you get a lot of discussion and I think you get a much fairer picture of what went wrong."

Rowley catapulted into the national spotlight months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed 3,000 people. She was legal adviser to the Minneapolis FBI field office, which had been involved in the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui just before the Sept. 11 attacks. Moussaoui was later indicted for his participation.

Rowley issued a letter to FBI director Robert Mueller outlining several areas where she felt bureaucratic resistance and a lack of accountability inhibited efforts to investigate Moussaoui's possible terrorist links at a time when they might have helped thwart the attacks. The letter essentially contradicted the official version of events as they had been described.

The mother of four was named one of Time magazine's persons of the year last year along with WorldCom auditor Cynthia Cooper and former Enron executive Sherron Watkins, each of whom refused to remain silent in the face of scandal despite huge professional risks. From obscurity, Rowley has become a missionary for the importance of integrity in everything from corporate accountability to academic achievement in grade school.

Rowley said Friday she was speaking as a citizen and not on behalf of the FBI. This engagement was on her own time, though she could accept no compensation because of bureau rules.

Charles M. Lyons, president of the University of Maine at Augusta and chairman of the council, said educational leaders who regularly make decisions affecting thousands of students can draw strength from her experience and her conviction.

"She's a hero to me because she's one of those rare individuals cast into the national spotlight who's refused to morph herself into a rock star," Lyons said. "She still goes to her desk in Minneapolis every day."

Institutions must embrace integrity, Rowley said. For the FBI, it helps attract the best and brightest and it fosters trust with the American public.

Trust is essential, she said, when it comes to expanded investigative powers like the USA Patriot Act, which many Americans worry gives government investigators too much power with too little accountability.

Rowley disagrees with much of the criticism of the Patriot Act, saying most of it is built on unjustified fear of potential abuses that are highly improbable. However, that fear arises out of a lack of trust in government institutions, she said. Debate over the act is healthy, not heretical, she said.

The FBI is in a better position to investigate terrorism today than three years ago, she said. Not only would investigators be able to scrutinize Moussaoui's computer files, but also the computers of many more people who probably shouldn't be investigated, she said.

"I would really wish the pendulum wouldn't swing so much," she said. "We have to be very careful."

Rowley said she taught ethics classes for the FBI for several years, and urged agents to never sacrifice truth to get a conviction or to avoid personal or professional embarrassment. After the Moussaoui problems came to light, bureau officials "went on to attempt to avoid personal and institutional embarrassment," she said.

Americans must live with integrity, not simply profess it, she said. She cited a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter." She noted that same quote was imprinted on the napkins in the Enron boardroom.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:


Coleen Rowley's Memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller
An edited version of the agent's 13-page letter
May 21, 2002

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