Coleen Rowley Biography


Born Coleen Cheney, c. 1955, in Fort Belvoir, VA; daughter of Larry (a mail carrier) and Doris Cheney; married Ross Rowley, c. 1980; children: Tess, Bette, Meg, Jeb. Education: Wartburg College, Waverly, IA, B.A., 1977; University of Iowa Law School, J.D., 1980; completed training at the FBI Academy, 1981.


Office —U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Minneapolis Field Office, Ste. 1100, 111 Washington Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55401–2176.


Began with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation as an agent in Omaha, NE, 1981; also served in Jackson, MS, at the U.S. Embassy in Paris as an assistant legal attachè, and at the U.S. Consulate in Montreal; worked as a wiretap transcriber at the FBI's New York City field office after January, 1984; stationed with the Minneapolis FBI field office as a media spokesperson after 1990, and chief division counsel, 1995—.


Person of the Year, Time magazine, 2002.


Coleen Rowley, an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Minnesota field office, unexpectedly found herself the subject of front–page headlines in the spring of 2002 when a scathing memo she wrote to her boss, FBI Director Robert S.

Mueller III, was leaked to the press. Her criticisms of the agency and its ineptitude incited a firestorm of controversy about the domestic security agency's ability to have apprised and perhaps even prevented the fateful attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Rowley was heralded at the end of 2002 by Time magazine as its "Person of the Year," along with Sherron Watkins and Cynthia Cooper, executives at Enron and WorldCom respectively, who had also come forward to criticize their organization's internal culture. Yet Rowley claimed she was anything but a hero. "I hate the term whistle–blower," she told Time writers Amanda Ripley and Maggie Sieger, and had said elsewhere that her outspokenness had been spurred only by guilt. "Since that fateful date of Sept. 11, 2001, I have not ceased to regret that perhaps I did not do all that I might have done," a New York Times report from Philip Shenon quoted her as writing.

Born in the mid–1950s on a United States military base in Virginia where her father was stationed, Rowley was the eldest of five children born to Iowans Larry and Doris Cheney. The family settled in New Hampton, a small town in north–central Iowa, where her father worked as a mail carrier. Rowley grew up in a close–knit German Lutheran family, and proved to be a strong–willed, academically gifted perfectionist from an early age. As a ten–year–old, her favorite show was The Man from U.N. C.L.E., a sophisticated espionage–spoof series that ran on NBC from 1964 to 1968. Rowley actually wrote to the show and asked to join its villain–fighting, gadget–equipped team, but was told to check with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for more information about a career in spying. The FBI responded to her request with a pamphlet that clearly stated that there was no such thing as a female FBI agent. "I thought to myself, 'That's stupid,'" Rowley recalled in the Time interview. "I figured that would change eventually."

Rowley graduated as New Hampton Community High School's valedictorian in 1973, but was denied a Regents Scholarship to Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, after meeting with the committee that chose the recipients. Expected to state that she hoped to become a missionary, physician, or lawyer after she earned her degree, Rowley candidly admitted that she did not yet know what her future plans were. She enrolled in the school anyway, paying her way with the help of a state grant for those considering a career in teaching, and majored in French. None of the Regents Scholarship winners chosen over her followed through on their lofty career goals. "I tracked them," she told Ripley and Sieger in the Time interview. "And within a few months, not one of them was doing what they said."

Rowley, on the other hand, did enroll in law school, finishing at the University of Iowa in 1980 and marrying a fellow student, Ross Rowley, around the same time. By then the FBI was admitting female agents into its ranks, and she was accepted at its training academy in Quantico, Virginia. Her career plans were almost waylaid by an unexpected pregnancy, which happened when she stopped taking birth control pills in an effort to shave time off a two–mile run that she hoped to set a record for at the Quantico school. Rowley's husband agreed to help her with the childcare and household duties, and after she was sworn in as an FBI agent on January 19, 1981, she became the family's sole breadwinner. The pair would eventually become parents to a brood of four.

Rowley proved to be a dedicated, able FBI agent. She served in its Nebraska and Mississippi field offices, and was also posted to the U.S. Embassy in Paris as an assistant legal attachè. After a stint at the U.S. Consulate in Montreal, she was transferred to the FBI's New York City office, where she worked on the organized–crime front. To improve her fluency in Italian and Sicilian, she trained at the U.S. Department of Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in order to better transcribe the FBI wiretap tapes of suspected Mafia operatives. She took accused mobster Gennaro Langella on his 1984 "perp walk" before the news cameras. Transferred to the Minneapolis FBI field office in 1990, Rowley served as its media spokesperson, and after 1995 as the chief division counsel there. She fielded press inquiries regarding her colleagues' capture of longtime Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Kathleen Soliah, and was involved in the 1997 man-hunt for Andrew Cunanan, the murderer of fashion mogul Gianni Versace.

Rowley, her friends and colleagues noted, was utterly devoted to her career and to the organization. She did begin to suspect, however, that a certain bureaucratic inefficiency and poor lines of communication with FBI headquarters in Washington seemed to hamper the agents' ability to perform their jobs adequately. Those internal shortcomings were made painfully clear on September 11, 2001, when 19 men hijacked four U.S. airliners and deployed them to crash into the two World Trade Center towers in New York City and the massive Pentagon complex in Washington, D.C.; the fourth airliner was diverted to Pennsylvania and crashed into a field, killing all passengers. The attacks seemed coordinated and well–organized, and American officials claimed there had been no prior knowledge of the plan, which apparently involved a number of Middle Eastern–born men who had trained at United States flight schools.

Rowley believed otherwise. On August 13, four weeks before 9/11, officials at an Eagan, Minnesota, flight school had contacted agents at the Minneapolis FBI office, alerting them to a French–Moroccan man who had applied to the school and wanted to train on a 747 flight simulator. Her colleagues arrested the man, Zacarias Moussaoui, for overstaying his visa, and began investigating his background. They learned from French intelligence officials that Moussaoui was linked to known Islamic fundamentalist organizations overseas, and had even been placed on a watch list of suspected terrorists because of his frequent travel to and from Kuwait, Turkey, and various European countries. He was even thought to have gone to Afghanistan, which sheltered the shadowy Al Qaeda organization headed by Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, and was known to have spent time in Pakistan just before his arrival in the United States.

With Moussaoui in custody, Rowley and her colleagues attempted to get permission from FBI headquarters to search his laptop computer. Their requests for a search warrant, which could only be granted under the terms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), were repeatedly denied; FISA rules at the time required that the FBI prove that the suspect was an agent of a terrorist group or a foreign government. Rowley and her Minnesota colleagues were adamant in their conviction that the information received from French intelligence agents met this condition, but the Washington office stonewalled in granting the request.

Three days after 9/11, Mueller, the FBI chief, asserted that his agency was surprised to learn that the hijackers had trained at United States flight schools, and that he and other officials had no inkling of this. Rowley and her fellow agents in Minneapolis were vexed. Next, a memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix, Arizona, surfaced in the media. It was dated July 5 and warned FBI headquarters about a number of Middle Eastern men who had entered the United States on student visas and were training to become pilots. Again, Mueller told the American public that there had been no warning bells sounded prior to 9/11, and because of that statement, Rowley came to believe that subordinates at headquarters had not properly briefed the FBI director. She and Minneapolis agents even tried to contact Mueller themselves, but were unable to get through. In what became a small act of rebellion, they began attaching a copy of their original August memo about Moussaoui to every single document that went to Washington.

In December of 2001, Moussaoui was charged with six counts of conspiracy for the 9/11 attacks. Mueller still claimed at the time that there was nothing the FBI could have done to prevent the tragedy, a statement that bothered Rowley. In February of 2002, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees launched a joint inquiry into why United States law–enforcement and intelligence experts had failed to detect the terrorists or their plans ahead of time. In May, Rowley was asked to come to Washington in order to meet with members of a Congressional committee behind closed doors. Wanting to present her side of the story clearly and unable to sleep because of it, she began writing down her talking points. She spent several hours drafting what would become her infamous 13–page memo. "It's at least possible we could have gotten lucky and uncovered one or two more of the terrorists in flight training prior to Sept. 11," the memo read, according to Time, had they been granted the search warrant to look at Moussaoui's computer. "There is at least some chance that may have limited the Sept. 11th attacks and resulting loss of life." At her close, realizing that she might be overstepping her bounds, she tacked on a sentence requesting federal whistle–blower protection. She hand–delivered one copy to the Mueller's office, and gave two more to members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

With a sense of relief, Rowley returned to her Minneapolis office. She learned that her memo had been leaked to the media the next day when a journalist from CNN phoned her at her desk. Stunned, she replied, "I can't help you. I don't know what you're talking about," she told Time 's Ripley and Sieger. Within hours, the story had hit the headlines, and Rowley returned to Washington in early June to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a battalion of news cameras. She told Congress that field–office agents like her colleagues in Minneapolis were burdened by paperwork, hampered by an ineffective computer system, and were often stymied by directives from or failed communications with the agency's D.C. headquarters.

Furthermore, Rowley described the FBI as rife with careerists, who were eager to protect their turf and unwilling to make decisions that might jeopardize their job security. "The Rowley memo casts a searing light into the depths of government ineptitude," Time declared. "Rowley has at least forced the FBI and the Administration to confront their failures directly and publicly, rather than sweep them under a self–stitched rug of wartime immunity." Newsweek writers Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff were equally caustic in commenting on Rowley's assessment. "Rarely has the FBI been so witheringly, and publicly, criticized by one of its own," they noted. Finally, even Mueller was forced to backtrack, telling reporters, "I cannot say for sure that there wasn't a possibility we could have come across some lead that would have led us to the hijackers," he said, according to Time 's Ripley and Sieger.

Rowley spurned film and book offers to tell her story, and returned to her job in Minneapolis and the arduous triathlon–training schedule that is her hobby. She remained greatly disconcerted by the controversy her memo had ignited. Some FBI agents admitted, off the record, that her criticisms were justified, but others publicly excoriated her for betraying the bureau's legendary code of loyalty and deference to superiors. "Loyalty to whoever you work for is extremely important," she conceded in the Time interview with Ripley and Sieger. "The only problem is, it's not the most important thing. And when it comes to not admitting mistakes, or covering up or not rectifying things only to save face, that's a problem."


America's Intelligence Wire, November 6, 2002.

Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, December 26, 2002.

Chicago Tribune, December 24, 2002.

Des Moines Register, February 9, 2003, p. 1.

Europe Intelligence Wire, May 15, 2003.

Maclean's, June 17, 2002, p. 13.

New American, June 17, 2002, p. 44.

New Statesman, June 10, 2002, p. 10.

Newsweek, June 3, 2002, p. 20.

New York Times, March 6, 2003, p. A1.

People, June 10, 2002, p. 73.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 9, 2003, p. 2B.

Strategic Finance, March 2003, p. 18.

Time, June 3, 2002, p. 24; December 30, 2002/January 6, 2003, pp. 34–42, pp. 58–60.

Time International, February 3, 2003, p. 8.

U.S. News & World Report, June 3, 2002, p. 30.

Carol Brennan

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: