Coleen M. Rowley, FBI Special Agent and Minneapolis Chief Division Counsel, is the latest government whistleblower to become the “toast of the town” in Washington. Her letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller was a courageous, if stinging rebuke of the Bureau’s performance before and after the September 11th tragedy. But her critique was familiar, in general terms, to every other federal whistleblower: a federal bureaucracy committed egregious and, in this case, deadly errors and then “circled the wagons” to prevent public exposure of its mistakes. Internal inquiries are blocked and the mid-level officials who made the mistakes are shielded; senior officials look the other way and, when asked, mislead the public as to what really happened.
This week Special Agent Rowley is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. She will be pressured to name names and elaborate on her critique of the Bureau. She will be assured that the United States Senate will protect her when the government strikes back, as it will inevitably. Reporters have elicited assurances from her bosses that her job is safe, although Attorney General John Ashcroft’s tepid statement that “she will not be fired” might give her pause. Ashcroft and Mueller have both promised “accountability” for officials who screwed up and some senator is sure to call for “heads to roll.” It promises to be “must see TV.”
How depressingly familiar this all is to other Washington whistleblowers. In 1999, I joined these ranks by “exposing” the Clinton administration’s cover up of the Chinese nuclear espionage scandal, when I was the Director of Intelligence at the Energy Department. I suppose that I too was the “toast of the town” for a time, as one of Wen Ho Lee’s defense lawyers put it. My public testimony about that scandal was in great demand, particularly by Republican senators John Warner, then chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. I, too, was promised “protection” from retaliation by the White House and the Energy Department, particularly by Warner and Republican Senator Pete Domenici.
Special Agent Rowley will undoubtedly hear praise this week for her courage and patriotism in coming forward, just like I did from Republican senators like Don Nickles and Richard Shelby. My boss, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, also promised the American public on Meet the Press that my job was safe. He told Tim Russert that I was a key member of his team and could stay at Energy as long as I wanted. He too proclaimed that there would be accountability and that heads would roll at the Energy Department.
I sincerely hope that she does not learn how quickly the life of a whistleblower in Washington can turn ugly. Although it had been on-going for decades, the first real public exposure of the Chinese espionage scandal came in March 1999. By September, my thirty-year career in intelligence and national security was in shreds. I was pushed out of the Energy Department, Richardson’s promises to the contrary. But that was not the worst of it. I was now publicly branded a “racist” and a “zealot” who had led the entire U.S. government on a merry chase simply to advance my own career. There had been “no espionage” after all, according to government officials ? speaking anonymously, of course. Congressional aides told me that the FBI conducted a “whispering campaign” on Capitol Hill intended to damage my professional reputation and smear my character. False assault allegations against me were published as established fact.
And where were my protectors in the Congress, like Warner and Shelby? They ran for cover. Appeals to Shelby, then the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee, and Rep. Porter Goss, who ran the House committee, for assistance were ignored. Those who had praised my courage and patriotism went on to other issues.
So how will Special Agent Rowley escape a similar fate? Don’t look to the Bush administration for protection; it has stonewalled government whistleblowers and even created some new ones. The Ashcroft Justice Department has actively intervened to prevent efforts to clear my reputation and the administration is now slow rolling an internal review of a book I have written about the experience.
Ironically, during the presidential campaign, Candidate Bush reportedly agreed with Senator Charles Grassley’s suggestion that a Rose Garden ceremony be held to recognize whistleblowers. Bush is said to have told Grassley that the country needs more whistleblowers, but that sentiment doesn’t appear to have carried over into the White House. When Tom Ridge assumed responsibility for Homeland Defense last fall, he too urged federal employees to come forward for the good of the country.
Now one has. Hopefully, she too won’t end up as “burnt toast.”