FBI Whistleblower: America’s Culture of Violence Starts With Perpetual Wars

Troops

Coleen Rowley is a former FBI special agent whose bravery as a whistleblower exposed many of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures. She was named one of Time magazine’s “Persons of the Year” in 2002. This week she talks with Jeff Schechtman about the recent shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Rowley accentuates two problems with the FBI. One, that local threats — even in high schools — are not the province of the FBI. It would, however, have been the bureau’s job to make sure that local law enforcement was aware of the tips it received.

The second problem she identifies is that too much information is coming into the bureau. Ever since 9/11, and particularly since the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, we know that giant sweeps of “national security data” are producing more information than the government can process, no matter how many analysts are employed. She claims that, at this moment, there may be over one hundred million names on a government watch list.

Rowley’s biggest concern, though, is what she sees as the US culture of violence. More than 17 years of perpetual war has left Americans psychologically bruised, and this is putting their safety at risk.

In this week’s podcast she points out that military service is emerging as something that is significantly correlated with — if not a cause of — America’s dramatic increase in mass shootings. Nikolas Cruz’s ROTC experience may be related to this very idea.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. We all know that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Which raises the question of just how many times we can be fooled by the FBI. The events, the mistakes in Florida are just the latest in a long line. Questions still surround what the FBI knew and what they did with respect to the Boston bombing, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the shootings in San Bernardino, and of course the granddaddy of all screw-ups, the events of 9/11.
My guest, Coleen Rowley, was a long time FBI agent in Division Legal Counsel. She blew the whistle on the FBI’s failure to act on information provided by the Minneapolis Field Office that might have prevented the 9/11 attacks. She ran for Congress in Minnesota and she continues to write and blog about US policy. It is my pleasure to welcome Coleen Rowley back to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Colleen, thanks so much for joining us.
Coleen Rowley: Well, thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to first talk a little bit about the FBI and whether we should read too much or too little into the events that surrounded what happened in Florida with respect to missing these signals and not acting on the information that they had. Based on what you have seen and read so far, talk a little bit about your take on this.
Coleen Rowley: Well, what came to be known as not connecting the dots after about two years of all the various post 9/11 inquiries, turned out to be simply that officials were not reading memos even with their name on them, even at very high levels, assistant directors. They would have “attention so and so.” After 9/11 and these would be things like, “Bin Laden going to attack.” There was one in April that actually said Bin Laden and a Chechen terrorist were going to attack. They had eight or so names on that. These were high level, director and assistant directors.
Afterwards, they claimed they never read it. That was just one of, a Phoenix memo was the same. You find that officials never read the intelligence and then secondly, never shared it. That’s the big story with the CIA not telling the FBI that they were tracking two hijackers for two years who had come into California and they never even told the FBI. To this day, that was never made clear. That was even… the official inquiries were never able to get the truth out about why the CIA did not share its information with the FBI.
Then finally, the biggest one of all really is the failure to share information with the public, because most of these attacks, when you really analyze them, if they are stopped at all, the underwear bomber, the shoe bomber, the Times Square bomber, they are stopped by members of the public, not by police. Of course, that doesn’t fit the narrative of the great FBI and the CIA and whatever they’re protecting us. What people of course, traumatized and made fearful, want to believe that they can be protected.
The truth is, and you know in other times the law enforcement would tell people, “Well, we depend upon members of the public, so if you don’t come to us as a witness even in a fraud matter, it doesn’t matter whether terrorism, or fraud, or anything, unless a member of the public lets us in on information, we’re not .. we are not omniscient.”
The thing is, 9/11, it was actually easier for a tip or a clue to make its way, the Moussaoui case, where I was the whistleblower, is actually a perfect example. Those early tips from a flight school here, who by the way, they were whistleblowers. The pilots themselves were whistleblowers. That tip made its way to the Director of Central Intelligence, George Tenet, the head of thousands of CIA, NSA, FBI, in a few days. That tip came in on August 16th and George Tenet was briefed, “Fundamentalist learns to fly,” on August 23rd. That’s amazing and the reason for that is that the system, unlike what it is today, was not trashed by massive surveillance and vacuuming of data, irrelevant data on all of us that is now billions of pieces of data.
This is something, you know with that tip, they looked at a tip that came in on a hotline and said, “Well, oh, the FBI never handled it,” but this is the problem. Right now, the tips, you don’t know the thousands and hundreds of thousands of calls coming in and not just calls because the vacuuming is on so many levels. Of course then, it’s what we warned from the start. How is it easier to find a needle in a haystack when you continue adding hay to that haystack?
Then I, and NSA whistleblowers, et cetera, we constantly said, “This is the dumbest thing in the world to be creating these massive databases. It makes the job of analysts and people trying to find that one needle or true threat, the Moussaoui out there, that it makes their job even harder.” You know what the FBI responded to that back, this was after Edward Snowden’s disclosures that it really became apparent. There was a hearing in Congress and were asked precisely that question, because some of us were saying, “Why continue to create this gigantic haystack?”
The FBI responded, “We need the haystack.” So they tried to justify this massive collection. This is proven over and over and over, that now it’s even more difficult than it was on 9/11 and even on 9/11 and those problems of not reading, not sharing, and not sharing with the public information, those were never corrected. As far as I know, there still is no mechanism in place that would… an accountability mechanism whereby if a piece of information comes to an official, there is even a way of tracking whether that official has seen it, so then they can just deny afterwards, “Well, I never read it.”
Jeff Schechtman: Would something like this be applicable in terms of what happened with the information they got with respect to the shooter in Florida?
Coleen Rowley: Well, yes, of course. Okay, there’s several things here that no one, as far as I can see, in the mainstream media is grasping. Number one, well how many tips are coming in, because that alone, again, it’s all a numbers game. You know, if one tip came in, like for instance the Moussaoui case, in a highly charged environment, that’s very relevant if someone says, “We got a terrorist suspect learning to fly.” Very, very relevant. But what if it’s warned now hundreds of thousands? No one asks how many tips are coming into the hotline. And by ginning up fear most of the tips will not be able, they won’t have enough specificity to be acted on and in many cases… I’ll just go back to… The FBI only has jurisdiction over federal crimes and, for instance, international terrorism.
If a wife calls up to the FBI hotline and says, “My husband is beating me, he’s violent,” and you know what? Many of the calls will be like that. That actually is not a federal matter. And so the best they will do with that kind of a tip, “I’m being beat up by my husband,” is they should let the local police know. Because the FBI does not treat many of the mass shooters as terrorism, this all goes to the definition of terrorism, in many of them, shooting up the churches, whatever, the FBI for what there’s political reasons for this, but they don’t want to call mass shooters terrorism. And so in a case, probably this case even, even of talking about someone who’s violent, could be a violent school shooter, probably the failure here is to alert local law enforcement, not for the FBI to take this as its own case.
In this case, local law enforcement of course was well aware of this young man because they had had disturbances in the neighborhood, he was expelled from school, I read somewhere that the police had 30 prior interactions with him. Whatever additional benefit would have come from the FBI alerting law enforcement — which is a failure, what they failed to do here. It’s kind of speculative. And that’s a problem. I think this idea of terrorism is way too narrow and that in fact it’s violence whether it’s domestic shooters et cetera, it’s a lot more, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to draw these distinctions whereby only Arab and Muslim people are considered terrorists and not race-based or even psychologically based violence that’s breaking out.
Jeff Schechtman: And how does this relate to situations like Boston or even San Bernardino where it looks like the FBI had an awful lot of knowledge about the perpetrators before these things happened?
Coleen Rowley: Well, there’s one other, this goes back to how many. You have to know the total list. And there are these terrorists lists now of people that they suspect or that potentially could whatever. And they’re compiled, the lists of people are compiled via all this vacuuming of data. At one point I’ve heard there’s a million names on the list. This is key because there’s about 14,000 FBI agents. This is the same thing that’s played out in Europe when they’ve had these people on their terrorist list, on their watch list. Well the question is, what can you do? You can’t round up a million people and put them, and of course that would include lots and lots of false positives because this list again, it’s pretty trashed. It’s not a list of people that will carry out things.
The FBI’s resorted to using, I’m going to say entrapment, it’s not the right term, but they’ve resorted to using highly coercive ways of getting people then to play out and what they suspect. One of the things they came up with. And they put a lot of people in jail after, and mostly vulnerable people that are susceptible to that coercion. So that’s what they can do. They can’t detail people to follow. If there are really thousands, hundreds of thousands and I’ve even heard a million people on the list. The other thing, the other thing, is why have we increased the radicalization, the hatred and actually now with domestic [mass shootings?] which have tripled. Or maybe they’re on their way to quadrupling. The skyrocketing of people with that potential to become violent and to basically just flip out and say, “I’m going to go a public place, a church, a school or workplace, a concert, I’m going to go to places where there’s lots of people and I’m going to shoot a lot of people because somehow that will solve my personal problems.”
The news media will always end their story and unfortunately these stories are happening almost every other day, in many cases it doesn’t result in a loss of life like the school one but there’s only a couple. A lot of those school shootings, they were only able to kill a couple of people. But it’s almost every other day that there will be a story like that. And it’s almost to the point where those stories are at the end of the news coverage. It’s kind of like, well this also happened today. A school shooting. But they’ll always say, the motive, police are seeking the motive. That means that they think it’s a Perry Mason detective plot. There’s some real ingenious motive or a husband trying to kill a wife or something like that. And in truth these are senseless acting out of violent impulses. Go back to that movie, Bowling for Columbine.
Why is that now at an epidemic level? And that’s what I and a co-writer, former foreign service officer, we tried to say, “Well, one of the reasons is this culture that we are now living in that is bombarding us with those violent impulses.” The CIA and the Pentagon have been backing, helping make about 1,800 movies, we know about things like American Sniper and Zero Dark 30. Those are just a couple of the ones that people have talked about a little bit. There’s 1,800 films out there. The plot is always like someone who’s wronged. The hero will be someone who’s wronged and then at the end they shoot everyone. The Terminator, all of these things. A mentally impaired or emotionally troubled person is seeing themselves as that hero in those movies. Essentially, I know, it’s hard for people to recognize this copycat phenomenon but even with suicide this happens. If a person in a… friend’s commits suicide, that often will have such an impact on that group of people that it will spawn copycat suicides.
Our culture is doing this, it’s promoting this violent culture. And of course this is over and above the availability and easy access to weapons. Even assault weapons and items that you can change that thing that the Paddock had which was a little mechanism he could change his non-automatic weapons to fully automatic. And  of course it was a loophole that made it legal. We can’t even put logical restraints on things like that. You put all of those things together and that does explain the question, Columbine, why is this happening? Why are we experiencing an epidemic of mass violence? Again, our news never mentions that because we want to be so, we want to make it seem, we want to compartmentalize this and make it seem as if it’s easily, it’s not us as a culture. It’s just whether you point to mental illness, whether you point to availability of guns, you want to make it something that doesn’t reflect badly on our culture.
Jeff Schechtman: Given that entertainment today is global and that these movies that you’re talking about, television shows, all of this violent imagery is exported around the world. Sometimes is even more popular in places around the world than it is here in the US, why then is it not having the same impact in other countries? Why is it so sui generis to the United States?
Coleen Rowley: Well, I think the internet with the showing of even the beheadings for instance are a good example. When ISIS learned that they could have a big impact by showing these terrible, violent beheadings, guess what? It did work. And it was copycatted. It gave oomph to their cause et cetera. So you’re absolutely right, and it’s not just of course our Hollywood wanting to make a lot of money by exporting violence. This exporting of films is not that, it’s pretty recent and as it continues, if no one changes the plots, if no one says for instance, violent video games, they’re worldwide as well. If no one is able to put a restraint on this and reel it back in, I think that we will see, and in fact we are seeing especially in Europe, where in the past in Europe there was even, homicides were almost negligible.
I lived in Paris when I was in college and I think there was one or two homicides in all of Paris when I was in college. Well that’s changed and changing. And it’s also, there’s also drug issues et cetera but things are changing even outside the United States. But I will just say it’s not, we’re not doomed as a human race to suffer from this level of violence. Norway, Norway, they had Bruvik in there as one example of a flip-out, violent shootings, horrible senseless thing. But you look at Norway as a whole and what they do with their prison system and how they handle violence is perhaps a model for the world.
Switzerland is another great example. Switzerland, lots and lots of people have guns and weapons, it’s a very high per capita ownership of weapons and yet Switzerland does not have but a tiny, tiny fraction of what we are seeing here in the United States. So we can learn from other places and what we’re doing in fact is encourage, back to Martin Luther King Jr. and what he said during the Vietnam war, the height of the Vietnam war. Violence begets violence. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If you cannot end perpetual war, this is what Martin Luther King said all the way back in 1967. If we cannot end perpetual war we will approach spiritual death. And physical death as well. I added the physical death because this is playing out in a myriad of our wars that we are so flippant about because we believe it’s only killing foreigners. But the blowback from sustaining perpetual war is this violence that we’re seeing now and experiencing domestically.
I think if people could understand that there are costs to 16 now going on 17 years of perpetual war, this is one of the blowbacks, there are many others. If they could understand that it’s negatively impacting ourselves there would be then some political will to reign this in.
Jeff Schechtman: How do we begin to prove that? How do we begin to make the point empirically that this perpetual war is having this impact?
Coleen Rowley: There’s a couple of little minor beginnings to this. When I and former foreign service officer Robert Wing wrote our op-ed, we only had a couple of things that we could point to. One of the things, I of course long recognized because I worked in the FBI when Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma federal building and of course immediately recognized well he’s a product of Gulf War One. He served in Gulf War One and he somehow became whatever you want to call it. PTSD, emotionally troubled, et cetera, vulnerable, vulnerable to the notion that violence is the answer, certainly. And then I saw, well, it wasn’t just Timothy McVeigh who was a veteran, who had become a domestic terrorist. There’s also John Muhammad, he was a product of Gulf War One. He shot 17 people out of their cars and terrorized, absolutely terrorized Washington. And then there was another guy, Forez, who shot his professors, three or four professors out in… “got a bad grade, solved my personal problems by shooting my professors.”
These three were all products of Gulf War One. Anecdotally I thought, well oh my gosh, veterans are turning out to have this problem now of being more susceptible to violence. And now there’s been two studies, one was in the New York Times by a scientist type person and one was one of my anti-war… David Swanson actually did the same thing, he looked at stats and stuff and in both of them came up with the same conclusion. Thus far, veterans are twice as likely to now become some of these mass shooters. Again in our news coverage if it’s mentioned at all, with the Parkland shooter, he was in junior ROTC; but with the shooter of the police, the guy who ambushed police in Texas, he was a veteran. The Navy yard shooter, there’s quite a number. And you start, that’s anecdotal, but then you just start looking, analyzing the numbers and you find out it’s pretty significant. This isn’t like the 3% error rate. This is twice as likely.
One of our Homeland Security analysts had written this very early on that this would be part of the blowback. And he got disparaged and was actually forced to quit by even putting it into a Homeland Security. Tom Ridge, head of Homeland Security, after one of, I think after the New Town shooting, he actually said, “Look at violent video games as a major cause.” And he got hushed up right away. He said it once, that about the violent video games being one of the causations, and he was hushed up. So there’s just the beginnings but it would be empirically possible, if we put as much time and attention into cause and effect and correlations as we do in ginning up “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction,” if we put that much time and effort into “proving,” I put proving in quotes there, cause and effect, we would certainly be able to see this. And already there’s some proof.
Jeff Schechtman: Coleen Rowley, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Coleen Rowley: Yes, any time. And let’s cross our fingers, but news coverage of this is right now counterproductive. It’s sensationalizing and exploiting even the tragedy of the victims which is going to, unfortunately, that’s going to cause even more. We need more political will to stop this.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.
Coleen Rowley: Thank you. Bye-bye.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
And thank you for listening and for 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 Coleen Rowley (frederic.jacobs / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and  and seal (FBI / Wikimedia).  

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