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Coleen Rowley first gained notoriety by speaking out. Then, by shutting up. Her 15 minutes of fame came and went without her. Rowley is the Federal Bureau of Investigation lawyer who, in May, wrote a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller III detailing the bureaucratic barriers that prevented the bureau’s Minneapolis office from investigating so-called 20th hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A copy of her letter was sent to Congress, and after that, surfaced in the media. There was the predictable firestorm of publicity. Reporters staked out Rowley’s home and grilled her neighbors. But she declined all requests to respond. She was summoned to Washington to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Her words that day, June 6, remain her only public comment. “I never really anticipated this kind of impact when I wrote this letter to Director Mueller,” Rowley said. Rowley’s letter chronicled her frustration at watching senior officials at FBI headquarters in Washington repeatedly “undermine” efforts by agents in Minneapolis to obtain authorization under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to search Moussaoui’s home computer. She railed against the multiple layers of bureaucracy separating FBI field agents from their supervisors in Washington. She assailed the “climate of fear” within the bureau that she said prevented middle-level managers from making aggressive decisions. And she did this at a time when criticizing the government over its actions in the War on Terrorism was anything but stylish. “I really do care, really, about the FBI,” the 20-year veteran agent told the Senate panel. “I’ve invested, you know, almost half my life in it. And I do care about our protection now. I’ve got four children. A lot of my friends have children, and I really think we ought to be doing our best to try and prevent any future acts of terrorism.” After her testimony, the 47-year-old Rowley, 10 years away from retirement, returned to her job as chief counsel in the Minneapolis field office. President George W. Bush praised her. Mueller pledged that she would face no reprisals for her actions. Still, she refused all media inquiries. She turned down awards. There would be no book deal, no Diane Sawyer heart-to-heart, no Lifetime TV movie. It left those who wanted to understand her little to work with. Oprah Winfrey dedicated a show to women who “took a stand” and celebrated Rowley, who did not appear. “It was never her intention for this to turn into what it turned into,” says Paul McCabe, the spokesman for the FBI’s Minneapolis office. “She thought she was going behind the scenes.” Martin Andersen, a former government whistleblower who now works for the Government Accountability Project, says Rowley’s subsequent silence only enhanced her message. Her professionalism, he says, gave her legitimacy. “She was a buttoned-down insider who came out with credibility,” Andersen says. The rank and file in the FBI remain divided on her actions. Some see her as a hero, others as a traitor. Gary Aldrich, a 27-year FBI agent who now serves as president of the Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty in Fairfax, Va., says about one-third of the hundreds of former agents with whom he keeps in contact approve of Rowley’s stand, with another third critical. “Her coming forward was courageous,” Aldrich says. “She blew the whistle at the precise moment it needed to happen.” Coincidentally, just days after Rowley’s letter was made public, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that the FBI had been granted broader powers in investigating suspected terrorists. Restrictions on domestic spying at political rallies and religious gatherings were lifted, and the bureau was given, for the first time, the go-ahead to surf the Internet and mine electronic databases for information.

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