Coleen Rowley was the whistleblower who exposed the FBI’s cover-up of the information from the Minneapolis FBI field office that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. Rowley tells WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman that in her view, we still don’t know the truth about who was behind the attacks and she urges a new independent investigation. She argues that not just the FBI but other agencies also ignored a whole range of early warning signs
She explains that, when she testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June of 2002, it was already too late to change course and that no one was interested in the truth she had to tell. She gives us firsthand stories of how she has seen the cover-up continue and become more pervasive.
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Full Text Transcript:
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. For the 14th time we’ve recently marked the tragic events of 9/11. In so doing we are also marking an event that set in motion a chain of events that has bequeathed us two wars, thousands of deaths, random terror attacks, fear, and ultimately confusion about how we got here and what’s next. How did the cause of those attacks, and even the failure to take action that could have prevented them, lead us perhaps in the wrong national direction? All of that and even the release of the 28 pages of the 9/11 report that we spoke with Sen. Bob Graham about last week, raises the specter of what we still don’t fully understand about what really transpired. And if we don’t, how do we know that what we’re doing today is the right thing to deal with terror, and to prevent future attacks? My guest Coleen Rowley was a longtime FBI agent and division legal counsel. She blew the whistle on the FBI’s failure to act on information provided by the Minneapolis field office that might’ve prevented the attacks. She ran for Congress in Minnesota and she continues to write and blog about US policy. It is my pleasure to welcome her here to the program. Coleen, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Coleen Rowley: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Jeff: You know in politics, and I guess in the corporate world as well, people like to say that the cover-up is often worse than the crime. In your view, talk a little bit about how the initial FBI cover-up played a role, not in shaping the events of 9/11, not in allowing those events to happen, but in misdirecting us in terms of our response once it happened.
Coleen: Yeah, and it was not only of course the FBI if you realize that the Bush administration fought tooth and nail to have to stop or prevent any inquiry at all from the start. Dick Cheney made calls to Daschle so that they would not have the congressional inquiry. Basically at least I know from the FBI, eventually when a joint intelligence committee was started, there was a timeline made that omitted some crucial things, but actually then skewed the facts in one direction. People have kind of forgotten about this. It’s 15 years ago but in those first few months after 9/11, Condi Rice had gone out and said no one would ever have expected a plane to fly into a building. And that really was the narrative, that was the prevailing narrative. Nobody spoke up and said, “No, no, there had been of course even training exercises with that premise.” There had been planning for international conferences in that plan, that took that into account. There had been a prior terrorist who had threatened to fly into I think the CIA headquarters etc. All of the government aligned itself so as to put out a narrative that 9/11 was not ever, there was no warnings about this and that there was nothing that could have been done. And at the same time then they were, with this prior agenda, to launch war on Iraq and course in the meantime they had to launch war on Afghanistan. And very quickly, what people didn’t know is that they got the lawyers at the office of legal counsel to begin writing memos that “legalized”, I put legalized in quotes, things like torture. And this wasn’t a year later. This was really quickly, within days they were writing these memos. One memo written within a couple of weeks of 9/11 said that there would no longer be freedom of speech – that the First Amendment would have to take a backseat now to the necessities of war. And that’s almost a form of martial law. And that was all done secretly and so the people didn’t have any idea and again the news was not able, that quickly, to get out the facts. And that’s the sad story, that we ended up doing all of these things – launching war in Iraq that had absolutely no connection to 9/11, beginning to torture, beginning these series of kidnappings and indefinite detentions and black sites. Even the massive spying was begun quite soon after 9/11. And none of this had any real relevancy to how the attacks had actually occurred, weight of the facts behind it, because there had been no inquiry or no investigation.
Jeff: And that’s really the question. In your experience was there anybody in the FBI, in the intelligence community, in any level of government that you saw or that you touched that had any interest in looking beyond or going beyond the official narrative.
Coleen: Well, the first people that seemed to have an interest were the Joint Intelligence Committee. That began in the early 2002, and that’s where agencies were told that they should look up all the documents that gave any relevancy to terrorism. They were to provide all those documents, and they were to basically do, at least the FBI decided to do a timeline of facts. Again, they’re kind of, “That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.” This began I would say February, March of 2002, that’s when I was aware. I actually made calls, because when the first drafts of these timeline came out in the FBI, I called up and I said, “Well, you know, there was the Moussaoui case and we tried to brief headquarters about that. And so their excuse for not including some of this was that that was an oral briefing, that was a verbal briefing, and we’re only going by written documentation. And yet the things that were in writing, some of the things that they included into the timeline which was there was no probable cause for having acted on the Moussaoui case, that actually was verbal, those were verbal briefings too. But they included them when they wanted to and did not include other things. We objected early on, it wasn’t just me. But nothing changed because they were in the power seat in Washington, DC. When I got my chance to be debriefed by the Joint Intelligence Committee, it was not until May of 2002, that’s eight and a half months after 9/11. And I determined that I would tell the full truth about what I knew, knowing also that there were other agents in our office. I didn’t even have a big role in that case. I was just a legal counsel. The case agent I knew was going to tell the truth, and his supervisor and some other people in the office. It’s of course long ago now and people will of course say none of this matters now 15 years later. But we see things like the 28 pages that have been covered up for 15 years. We know that some of the people actually now admit to having lied to these official inquiries. We have an FBI agent who now says, “I didn’t tell the truth to the Inspector General because the CIA told me I couldn’t and I thought the CIA was the boss here for national security.” And so he admits now that he didn’t tell the truth to the Inspector General. And that’s one of the reasons why we need a new 9/11 investigation, because there was a lot of omissions. There’s been stuff to this day that we still don’t know the truth about.
Jeff: Do you think that if the truth had come out early on, if people had listened to some of the things that you’re talking about, that the response following 9/11 might’ve been any different?
Coleen: It’s the timing, that’s the problem. This is why I use the Mark Twain quote, which is, it turns out that Mark Twain said, “Lies go halfway around the world while the truth gets its shoes on.” Churchill later plagiarized Mark Twain and said, “Lies go halfway around the world, while the truth gets its pants on.” Both shoes and pants. And that is almost inherent. If you think about it, it’s almost inherent. Especially after a scandal, cover-ups are really common and endemic, especially when there’s something terrible that’s happened. People are always going to be loath to tell the truth. Frankly this is why we need an independent press. This is what we do need, people, investigative reporters, like Seymour Hersh. But when you look at why it took a year plus before some little bit of truth started to leak out about that, it’s always going be the case. So what we have to do, I think, is people…, is demand before action. You know, there’s always this pressure: “We’ve got to do something. We can’t take time. We can’t have a committee to look into this. We’ve got to do something now, quick and rash.” And I think this is where, especially if it’s to launch a war for heaven’s sakes, we need to have a public that’s willing to slow things down and take the time now to find out what went wrong here. Which country was actually funding the 9/11 hijackers. Was it Iraq? Was it Afghanistan? Or was it a country like Saudi Arabia?
Jeff: To what extent do you think a new investigation at this point into the events of 9/11 would produce information that would be relevant to public policy, to government policy, at this point?
Coleen: It’s a good segue into the laws now that are coming before Congress, even 15 years later. There’s a couple of bills that are in Congress, one is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, and the acronym is JASTA. And because the 9/11 families have been unable to sue Saudi Arabia, officials, people that act on the part of the government. And now that there is this evidence in the 28 pages that have come out, they’ve been prohibited, or prevented from even suing Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile there’s been another earlier lawsuit that found Iran, a federal district judge found Iran guilty of having been at least partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Now you can’t get an example more egregious than this of current policy. We found Iran responsible. To be honest, Iran had nothing to do with the attacks of 9/11, just similarly to Iraq. And meanwhile the country that now there is quite a bit of evidence, and we don’t know to this day what if any follow-up has occurred from the time that the Joint Intelligence Committee was written in 2002. We don’t know what if anything was either confirmed or further followed up on. It’s all been hidden. And that’s important. The reason it’s important now is because we continue to arm Saudi Arabia. There’s another bill right now and there’s quite a number of human rights organizations opposing the sale of $1.15 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia. And these arms are being used to bomb Yemen and hit hospitals and civilians, etc. Well obviously those two things are connected, if Saudi Arabia was even responsible in part for helping the hijackers, why in the heck would we be helping arm them to bomb more in another country that’s even causing more increasing terrorism. Again, the truth, if we know the truth, then the common sense reaction to that is to put a stop to this. But, when people don’t know the truth Congress is likely to vote to authorize and continue the arming of Saudi Arabia. And right now with that JASTA act, it was unanimously passed by both the House and the Senate because they, I think, that Congress is in a difficult position to say that the 9/11 families are not allowed to find out the truth of why their loved ones died. I mean I think it’s really politically difficult for them to say that they can’t sue Saudi Arabia. On the other hand Obama now is going to, it’s reported, that he’s going to veto the JASTA. And so now it would require an override on the part of the congresspersons, and you know what, overrides are very difficult so that the people that even unanimously supported it before will probably now have changed their minds.
Jeff: Given how difficult it was as you mentioned before after 15 years just to get the 28 pages, what do you think the difficulty would be, the degree of difficulty, with respect to trying to get at the truth, trying to reopen an investigation at this point into those events 15 years ago?
Coleen: Well, it’s going to be uphill and difficult. A lot of people would just like to put it behind them. You know, it’s like what Obama said about torture, “We have to look forward and never look back at our past crimes.” You know, so people, again we’re talking a little bit about human nature to dwell on something that’s very painful, it’s going to be difficult. Another reason for the JASTA to pass is because that actually would be a big step forward. In a criminal court, the Moussaoui case, he was the hijacker, excuse me, not the hijacker, he was a suspect who was connected to the other 19. And he was prosecuted in federal district court and through discovery, criminal discovery, through that public trial, that’s how we actually know a lot of information. Those things are all public exhibits. That would be the same thing if the JASTA law was to pass. There would be discovery, and we as an American public would learn a lot. It might not be exactly the same as a congressional, if there was a new commission appointed. It wouldn’t be the same. But at least it would be something. And I think there is a strong chance that it will pass. But again, it will require probably a congressional override.
Jeff: Are the courts, the criminal courts, or even the civil courts the place to begin to litigate the truth of this, even more so than Congress or an independent commission.
Coleen: That is, well, you’ve just described the debate. Because there are law professors out there and there’s a neoconservative site called Lawfare. And that debate is actually taking place on these sites. Some of the Office of Legal Counsel, prior attorneys under the Bush administration, have weighed in. And you know, there is a difference of opinion on that. I don’t think it’s the most important thing in the world, whether Congress or the court, I think both, why can’t we just have both. I mean our courts are used all the time for learning the truth of matters and the only difference here is to say well because it’s a foreign country, that country deserves sovereign immunity. And the worry is that if we go down this path that the United States would be held responsible in their court. But I say, that would be a good thing. I think that the United States, for instance with torture, Spain tried to assert universal jurisdiction to look at the crimes of torture that the United States had committed. And the United States pressured Spain to drop those and fire the judge and everything else. But I think it would be a good thing if we had this, because we’re not going to have accountability on ourselves. I think it has to be, I think we have to have international law, and we have to have a mechanism so that under equal treatment of the law, all countries are, no country is above the law. And you can say well, “We can commit crimes but the other country can’t.” And I think that this might be a good way to start that.
Jeff: I guess the practical aspect of it would be that in order to undertake it, it would have to be within the context of an institution that the public has faith in.
Coleen: Well, that’s true and our court system right now, it’s hard to say, the American public poll will show that we don’t have a lot of trust in politicians, in Congress, and in presidential candidates, etc. The polls show that the trust is now at the lowest. Maybe the court system still retains some level of trust.
Jeff: Coleen, talk little bit about your pursuit of this issue, for all of these many years.
Coleen: I began a long time ago right after 9/11 being appalled by the fact that this cover-up was beginning, and then seeing this so-called war on terror begin, and again that had very little connection to what I knew was behind the terrorist attacks, and seeing terrorism grow. In the world right now if we wanted to be safer – everybody says you have to do something – but you don’t do something that makes the problem worse. And you see with Al Qaeda and Isis, the level of terrorism worldwide has increased by some accounts by 6,000 percent. George Will, who’s a conservative columnist, was on Fox Sunday Morning News last week. And even George Will admits, they said, “Are we safer?” Now, a lot of these questions come out on the anniversary. Are we safer now, 15 years later, than we were at 9/11? Even George Will and other conservatives admit that the world is far less safe. Now he says “But we’re safer in the homeland”, and I don’t think that there’s any evidence of that either, between the mass shootings that actually are indirectly kind of a war come home response. You see a lot of veteran shootings, the killings of the police officers in Louisiana. You see kind of copycat violence which are these senseless shootings in theaters, in the Navy Yard, you know different places. I don’t think that this is making us safer and certainly for Americans traveling it’s not safer. So I think that we’re really causing, it’s extremely counterproductive. I wrote an article for the Intelligence Ethics Journal about four years ago. If people Google it, it’s a PDF and the title is, “The War on Terrorism is a False Promise for Security.” And I think, you know, it’s propaganda that it’s making us safer. We’ll do anything to be safe, that’s right, but then why would we do anything to make ourselves less safe and I think that’s really what gets me, and I saw this from the start. Mass surveillance, that thing that Edward Snowden revealed, that actually makes it more difficult to find the needle in the haystack because you’re adding so much non-relevant information on innocent people into this gigantic computer database. That doesn’t make it easier to detect the terrorist. It makes it more difficult. And I think if people understood that all of these responses have really been terrible and awful and counterproductive. We haven’t done anything right really since 9/11.
Jeff: When you look back at the information, at the intelligence, at the information that the FBI had prior to 9/11, the signals that were blinking red at the time that were covered up afterwards, was it easier to get that intelligence then or is it more difficult now to get that intelligence given the level of terrorism around the world?
Coleen: It was easier to spot relevant information like in the Moussaoui case. You know, when you got a call from a flight school that this is the most suspicious student we’ve ever had, that made our agents and the legal, excuse me, the FBI attaché in Paris, they ran with it. Okay, so they got this information and it was so easy to see, “Oh yes, oh my goodness this is something,” that they ran with it. Right now it’s much more difficult to spot things. You even had the underwear bomber’s own father calling the State Department, and no one acted on it. And you had, obviously the Boston bombers were like this. This was Russia telling us that the brother had connections, etc. So these things are much more difficult and I was one of the first people that actually said: “Oh, it’s like putting more hay on a haystack.” How does that make it easier to spot the needle by putting more hay on? It’s very important, note this, before 9/11 there were only a handful of names on the terrorist watch list. I think at one point it was like 11 or 16 on the day of 9/11. It was very few. Some of those by the way were the actual people because the CIA had been following them for a couple of years. So they were the actual ones. Can you imagine only that low a number? And now we’re talking millions of names on this list. You think it’s going to be easier when it’s millions? Quantity does not equal quality, and you know relevancy is very important. So I think in that respect there’s been a real, it’s become a lot harder. Most of the cases I know of that actually have thwarted terrorism, has been through the public. It hasn’t been through like the FBI, or the NSA, or Homeland Security. So in the Times Square bombing, for instance, the people on the street noticed smoke coming from a car. When they stopped the underwear bomber, it was the fellow passengers. The same
with Reid, it was fellow passengers. And so I think that the public is very valuable. I’m not quite so sure what this massive national security with what the Washington Post called, Top Secret America. I don’t see that we’re getting any value from, probably close to $1 trillion now, that has been spent just on internal national security and CIA, FBI, all of these16 intelligence agencies.
Jeff: Coleen Rowley, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Coleen: Yes, thank you for having me and I hope Americans take the time to learn more and then actually contact elected leaders and hope we can get this back on a better track.
Jeff: Thank you so much. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Condoleezza Rice (Eric Draper / White House)
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