Doug Grow: FBI Performs A Nasty Little Sequel To Whistle-Blower Saga

by Doug Grow
The Minneapolis Star Tribune
December 22, 2002


A nasty political sequel is being played out before our eyes. "The Bureaucracy Strikes Back" is the story flowing from the courageous saga of Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley, who blew the whistle on higher-ups in the FBI's bureaucracy.

Just seven months ago she was being heralded as a national hero for daring to testify that top-level FBI officials had stymied efforts by Minneapolis agents to search records of Zacarias Moussaoui before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A go-ahead from Washington for a search in Minneapolis might have yielded information that might have prevented the horrid attacks. A search of Moussaoui's belongings after 9/11 found clues to the plot.

When Rowley appeared before congressional committees in Washington, there were concerns being expressed that she might pay a price for her courage.

"The real question is not what happens today or tomorrow," the late Sen. Paul Wellstone said at the time Rowley was testifying. "It's what happens in the next year or two, or after that. That's always the case with whistle-blowers. It's going to be important for us to remain vigilant in her case."

What's happened?

Even in the midst of her testimony in Washington early last June, the FBI seemed to deliver a pointed message to Rowley that she was on her own. During a break in her testimony, Rowley had gone to FBI headquarters. Rather than provide a vehicle or any sort of escort for the agent when she left the FBI building, Rowley was left to fend for herself. She stepped out the door and into swarms of TV news crews. The situation was so chaotic that Rowley was concerned that some of the TV people might be injured by passing traffic.

Now come reports of what appears to be another message being delivered to Rowley and her ilk.

The Star Tribune's Greg Gordon reported last week that at a quiet little ceremony earlier this month, Marion (Spike) Bowman was one of nine people in the bureau to receive an award for "exceptional performance." The award carries with it a cash bonus of 20 to 35 percent of the recipient's salary and a framed certificate signed by the president.

What does this have to do with Rowley?

Bowman heads the FBI's National Security Law Unit. That's the unit that blocked Minneapolis agents from pursuing their suspicions about Moussaoui.

Bowman received the big pats on the back (and cash) a few days before the House and Senate Intelligence committees turned in their reports of pre-Sept. 11 intelligence failures. The committees said that Minneapolis agents deserved honors for their work and that those who performed poorly should be disciplined. The National Security Law Unit was singled out by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., for inept performance.

There were no FBI honors for the Minneapolis office. There was a big honor for the lead antagonist of the Minneapolis office.

But the beauty of a truly slick bureaucracy is that you can never really know the motive for an action.

Obviously, no FBI official ever said that Rowley was shoved out of the bureau's headquarters and into the thundering media herd last June as a little payback for her integrity. And FBI director Bob Mueller isn't about to say that Bowman is getting heralded for "exceptional performance" as a way of showing whistle-blowers who's got the biggest whistle.

In fact, there are Mueller-defenders who gasp in horror at the suggestion that the FBI would ever be so crass as to play Machiavellian games with its prestigious awards. We're supposed to believe that despite that disappointing little experience with the Minneapolis agents before Sept. 11, Bowman's office had done just a great job.

Brian Atwood, dean of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs since Oct. 1, is an expert on the subject of bureaucracies. Until global realities changed, Atwood was being credited with streamlining the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He said it's very possible that top officials in the FBI feel that Bowman deserves being defended from what they see as unfair "political" attacks.

"He would be seen as one of the best [in the FBI hierarchy], otherwise he would not be in a position to make [such] a mistake," Atwood said.

So when Bowman was criticized by Rowley and politicians, it's very likely that top FBI officials would ask, "What can we do to spit in their eye?"

The FBI's Minneapolis office has not commented on Bowman's award for "exceptional performance." Presumably, agents in Minneapolis are so busy bracing for the next message from Washington they don't have time to talk.

-- Doug Grow is at


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