In 2002, then-F.B.I. agent Coleen Rowley appeared on the cover of Time magazine, along with two corporate whistleblowers, as Time’s Persons of the Year.
Earlier in 2002, Rowley, then chief legal counsel in the F.B.I.’s Minneapolis bureau, gained headlines for writing a memo to F.B.I. Director Robert Mueller documenting the F.B.I. Headquarters’ series of failures in the weeks leading up to the 9/11 attacks. She later testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharing with Congress and the American people what took place in the summer of 2001, and suggesting reforms to avoid repeats of the same mistakes.
Rowley retired from the F.B.I. in 2004. Since leaving the government, the tell-it-like-it-is Iowa native made a 2006 run for Congress on the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party ticket in Minnesota, and has become one of the most outspoken critics of America’s post-9/11 descent into militarism and the surveillance state.
In this first of a two part series, Rowley shares her philosophy on government employment, both in the civilian and military sectors.
Coleen Rowley, thank you for granting this interview. Before discussing issues of war and peace, and the ability of governments to bring about both, I would like to ask if you could share with Tikkun Daily readers your own thoughts about the word “heroism.”
Since 9/11, our national political discourse has been saturated in “hero-speak,” if you will. What strikes me about your own whistleblowing background, as well as that of others like Thomas Drake, Jesselyn Radack and Ed Snowden, is how calm and reflective all of you are. I certainly would not hesitate to describe the courses of action that flowed from those states of mind to be heroic. It would seem that it is these thought-centered actions which are ultimately going to save our American freedoms, not bombs, guns and war.
Can you share with me your thoughts about the concept of heroism, and whether you think the very concept has been manipulated by politicians in the post-9/11 era to nefarious ends. If you believe the word has been manipulated, what can we do as a citizenry to help reaffirm the basic principle that human thought and regard for individual rights will preserve and defend American democracy, not the instruments of violence, be they in private hands or in the hands of government actors?
Thanks for all you do too, Timothy.
I hold conflicted, paradoxical views about “heroism”. For me personally, I eventually came to see it as a mistake to even accept any award–as I explained in my 2005 speech “Awards: the good, the bad and the ugly” I don’t believe in calling any person “heroic” as we are all mixed bags (also called “sinners”) and I agree that the whole concept of putting someone on a pedestal has many downsides and can be used for manipulation of public opinion. Even the Nobel Peace Prize has been subverted over the years. However, I do think that human actions can be heroic. Ethical decision-making needs to be recognized, applauded and hopefully emulated by all citizens.
When you, along with other American whistleblowers, met with Ed Snowden in October to give him the Sam Adams Award, what feelings were going through your heart? If I were in your shoes, I would have been very emotional, not only as a result of meeting a great American hero, but also the sad awareness of having to do so on foreign soil, in Russia, not here at home in America. What were you feeling during that event in Russia with Ed Snowden, and how did you process it all?
I think we all felt very privileged to get the opportunity to travel to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden. This was before Snowden had gotten more opportunities to provide more direct video testimony and media interviews. There were some logistical snafus in getting our visas and, of course, we were so fortunate to benefit from audience donations at an earlier speaking event that covered the bulk of our travel expenses, that I did not let myself think it would really happen until we were on the plane. Watching Snowden’s talks and the articles being written nearly every day by the various journalists covering the NSA disclosures since our meeting in October is, of course, even more meaningful. So much is now on the line and no one knows how the story will end.
I’m very interested in what motivates people to work for the government, both in the civilian and military sectors. As someone who worked for the F.B.I. for 24 years, do you think there is anything the American people can do to pro-actively incentivize men and women of high moral conscience, like Ed Snowden and Jesselyn Radack, to pursue government careers, while simultaneously dis-incentivize more tyrannical personality types from even thinking about government service as a platform for their pursuits of control and domination? Or is it basically all a crapshoot for which the American people have no control over, other than praying for an end to perpetual war and the surveillance state?
I agree that government service should attract the best and the brightest as well as men and women of high moral conscience. Lots can be done to accomplish that. For instance when I went through the FBI’s hiring process in the late 1970′s, they hired people with diverse academic and professional backgrounds for the “special agent” position, i.e. not only accounting and law, but language, science, engineering, and a diverse catch-all category that included all different academic backgrounds as long as you had a few years of professional work experience. Unfortunately, after 9-11, the FBI seemed to start hiring mostly military officers, especially military intelligence backgrounds. This narrower range would be detrimental to getting a broad range of expertise and skill sets, not to mention a narrower mindset.
All organizations and bureaucracies suffer from versions of “Peter Principle” and lack of leadership. In the FBI, those agents who were not good investigators often went into management and climbed the executive ranks. There were plenty of money incentives to do so and it appealed to those whose ambitions overshadowed their ethics.
Now a “revolving door” has developed between military and national security agencies and all the privatized, for profit defense contractors and hundreds of private contractors working on security and intelligence gathering. The revolving door did not exist to the extent it does now and it’s very corrupting of serving the public interest. If the Office of Government Ethics enforced restrictions on post employment, it would remove this perverse incentive.
In recent your Democracy Now! interview with Amy Goodman, Ms. Goodman brought up the quote from former NSA Director Michael Hayden, hinting that Edward Snowden be put on a U.S government kill list. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, saidin reply to Hayden’s remark about killing Ed Snowden, “I can help with that.” Mike Rogers, like yourself, is a former F.B.I agent. In your decades of experience with the F.B.I, how prevalent is this brand of hostility toward American dissenters inside the bureau, and in particular toward American dissenters who challenge executive branch abuses? Would you say that kind of attitude is commonplace, or is former F.B.I agent, Mike Rogers, an outlier?
From what I know of Mike Rogers and his short-lived FBI career, he wasn’t exactly typical of all agents. I didn’t know him at all but I heard he left the FBI under odd circumstances. But because he’s now in a position of power in Congress, and favors the FBI and national security agencies, the FBI agents association looks to him to protect and enhance their job and retirement benefits.
As in any organization, large majorities of employees tend to be against any form of whistleblowing, especially if it entails the public learning of organizational failures or problems. So there are constant cover-ups of wrongdoing even of such egregious situations as the FBI’s operating of “top echelon” organized crime family informants. This went on for decades! Numerous FBI officials were well aware of Whitey Bulger’s and Gregory Scarpa’s continuing to murder others, for example, but no one blew the whistle. The old motto under J. Edgar Hoover was “never embarrass the Bu.”
You mentioned to me previously that several of your family members have served in the military. Your father, for example, served in the Korean War. What do you think of the practice of engaging in a hot war, like Iraq or Afghanistan, in order to financially support one’s self or one’s family? In your estimation, is it moral for any person to engage in warfare for the primary purpose of putting food on the table?
Yes, it’s true that I and my husband both come from military families. (My father joined the Army at the time of the Korean War but he never served there. In fact I was born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, toward the end of his service.)
I’m not a complete pacifist as I believe in the right of self defense but I think many of the recent wars that the U.S. has been involved in have been illegal and unethical wars of aggression, driven by imperialist objectives. These wars have been based on false premises which have killed and hurt the people in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere. The violence has also damaged our own US soldiers in many ways and we are suffering from the blowback. PTSD and suicidal and homicidal violence have migrated home. There are now whole prison wards devoted to veterans. Even those involved in drone bombing are developing serious cases of PTSD.
So no, I don’t think it’s moral for any American citizen to kill (when it’s not in self-defense) “to put food on the table.” I don’t blame military troops, however, as much as I blame the US politicians (most of whom never served themselves or even were “chickenhawk” draft dodgers like Cheney, Rove, and Clinton) who put the military into such perverse situations.
I am very concerned about the effects of our nation’s for-pay soldiery. I believe the practice has grave implications for human rights in those nations where there are “U.S. boots on the ground,” as well as the preservation of our own democratic values and our nation’s international reputation. You have described the current U.S. military enlistment system as a “mercenary force” and a “poverty draft.” Those terms sound entirely accurate to me. Yet I remember in the run-up to the Iraq War, the time period between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, that there was a common mantra among many antiwar liberals: “We oppose the war, but we support our troops.” It seems everyone was worried that war opponents would start taking out their opposition to the war on the troops, like spitting in the actual faces of the soldiers, as happened during the Vietnam era. Everyone it seems, even the most ardent antiwar Americans, wanted to avoid a repeat of that open hostility to soliders in the immediate post-9/11 years. A decade later, the “oppose war, but support our troops” mantra still predominates in mainstream U.S. society.
Do you think it’s time that antiwar Americans recalibrate our terminology with regard to military enlistees, and in ways that would inject greater moral depth and accountablity into the discussion? Put another way, do you think that we as a nation are capable of having a more frank public discussion about the severe moral problems associated with a for-pay soldiery – or a “mercenary force” as you put it – without descending into the kind of face-spitting scenarios reminiscent of the Vietnam war era, which most of us clearly want to avoid?
Yes, I do think we should be having a more frank public discussion with all military enlistees. I think many are enticed by the money and the chance of getting an education but even more are duped into thinking they are serving some “noble cause” when in fact all of these recent wars have been based on outright lies. Many of the troops have suffered severe “moral injury” as well as physical injury.
Military Commands are now desperate to develop “resiliency training” and other programs to reduce the suicides and homicides among the troops but nothing seems to work very well. The invention of drone bombing and the fact that only the U.S., U.K. and Israel are utilizing drones on “the global battlefield” is being sold as if it’s casualty-free for the U.S. side and painless for the drone operators but even that is not true. See Heather Linebaugh’s “I worked on the U.S.drone program. The public should know what really goes on.”
In the upcoming Part Two of the Q & A with Coleen Rowley, the former F.B.I. agent discusses recent world events, including the war in Syria, President Obama’s thwarted plans for a military strike, and how the U.S. should respond to the use of chemical weapons.