WASHINGTON, March 5 — The veteran F.B.I. agent who exposed the bureau's failure to heed evidence of terrorist plots before the Sept. 11 attacks is now warning her superiors that the bureau is not prepared to deal with new terrorist strikes that she and many colleagues fear would result from an American war with Iraq.
The agent, Coleen Rowley of the bureau's Minneapolis field office, is not a counterterrorism specialist and does not have access to detailed intelligence about Al Qaeda and its planning. But she is a 22-year F.B.I. veteran who is intimately acquainted with the bureau's inner workings and with the thinking of fellow agents, including agents who specialize in counterterrorism.
Coleen Rowley, the agent who exposed bureau shortcomings before the Sept. 11 attacks, is warning that the F.B.I. is unprepared for terrorism that might result from war with Iraq. (NYT Photo/Steve Wewerka)
In a letter last week to the F.B.I. director, Robert S. Mueller III, Ms. Rowley said that he had a responsibility to warn the White House that the bureau would not be able to "stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq."
Ms. Rowley created an uproar last year when she revealed how in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks bureau supervisors in Washington had blocked Minneapolis agents who wanted authority for a broader investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, who has since been indicted as a conspirator in the attacks.
She said that many of her colleagues share her view that an American invasion of Iraq would result in a wave of new domestic terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups and that the F.B.I. was ill-prepared to deal with the new threat.
In her letter, Ms. Rowley said she believed that the bureau was continuing to mishandle domestic counterterrorism investigations, including its follow-up to the arrests of Mr. Moussaoui and Richard Reid, the confessed Al Qaeda terrorist who tried to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives hidden in his shoes in December 2001.
"The bottom line is this," Ms. Rowley wrote in her Feb. 26 letter to Mr. Mueller. "We should be deluding neither ourselves nor the American people that there is any way the F.B.I., despite the various improvements you are implementing, will be able to stem the flood of terrorism that will likely head our way in the wake of an attack on Iraq. What troubles me most is that I have no assurance that you have made that clear to the president."
Ms. Rowley provided a copy of the letter to The New York Times, saying she felt she needed to publicize her views in light of a possibly imminent American attack on Iraq.
A spokeswoman for the F.B.I., Susan Dryden, had no comment on the contents of Ms. Rowley's letter or whether Mr. Mueller had read it. "While I will be unable to comment on personnel correspondence of the director, Director Mueller has taken a number of steps to make the F.B.I. a more flexible, more responsive agency in our war against terrorism," she said.
In testimony in Congress earlier this week, Mr. Mueller pointed to several changes that he has made in the structure and mission of the F.B.I.'s counterterrorism program, insisting that "the bureau has no greater priority than preventing terrorist attacks against the United States — and since the attacks of Sept. 11, the F.B.I. has embraced this challenge and transformed itself."
He noted that the bureau had brought criminal charges against more than 200 terrorism suspects since September 2001 and that half had already been convicted. "The nature of the threats to the United States homeland continues to evolve, and so does the F.B.I.," he said.
Bureau officials also noted that Mr. Mueller has warned publicly that terrorist threats could grow as a result of an Iraq war.
While F.B.I. supervisors in Washington could question Ms. Rowley's motives in seeking new publicity for her views, many of her colleagues and lawmakers in Congress have praised her as a whistleblower and conscientious agent who has turned aside lucrative publishing and film offers.
In a telephone interview, Ms. Rowley said her letter could endanger her position in the bureau by angering Mr. Mueller and other supervisors in Washington. But she said she felt she could not remain silent.
"I know that my comments appear so presumptuous for a person of my rank in the organization, and I'm very sorry for that impression," she wrote to Mr. Mueller. "A good part of the reason lies in a promise I made to myself after I realized the enormity of what resulted when F.B.I. headquarters supervisory personnel dismissed the warnings of Minneapolis agents pre-Sept. 11, 2001," she wrote. "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."
She said she was worried by the bureau's continuing mishandling of the cases against Mr. Moussaoui, the only person charged in an American court with conspiring in the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and Mr. Reid, who pleaded guilty last year to trying to blow up an American Airlines plane over the Atlantic.
Specifically, she said, she was alarmed that the bureau and the Justice Department had failed to try to question either of the two about their Al Qaeda contacts, choosing instead to focus entirely on prosecution.
"It therefore appears that the government may have sacrificed the possibility of acquiring information pertinent to future attacks, in order to conduct criminal prosecution of these two individuals," she wrote. "Although prosecution serves worthy purposes, including deterrence, standard practice in `Organized Crime/Terrorism 101' dictates imaginative, concerted attempts to make inroads into well-organized, cohesive groups. And sometimes that requires `dealing with the devil.' "
"Lack of follow-through with regard to Moussaoui and Reid gives a hollow ring to our `top priority" — i.e. preventing another terrorist attack," she wrote. "Moussaoui almost certainly would know of other Al Qaeda contacts, possibly in the U.S., and would also be able to alert us to the motive behind his and Mohammed Atta's interest in crop-dusting."
Law enforcement officials have speculated that Mr. Atta, the ringleader of the Sept. 11 attacks, sought information on crop-dusting planes in hopes of using one to disperse chemical or biological weapons.
One of Mr. Moussaoui's court appointed lawyers, Edward B. MacNahon Jr., said in an interview, "To my knowledge, the government has never attempted to talk to Moussaoui after Sept. 11," which he said he found surprising. "I would think there is somebody in the government who would be curious about what Moussaoui knew, if anything."
Mr. Reid's court-appointed lawyers in Boston refused comment on the issue.
In her letter, Ms. Rowley suggested that uncertainty over the bureau's survival was creating turmoil within its staff. "Your recent briefings of field management staff have thrown light on the immense pressures you face as you try to keep the F.B.I. intact and functioning amid persistent calls for drastic restructuring," she wrote.
"You have made it clear that the F.B.I. is perilously close to being divided up and is depending almost solely upon the good graces of Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush for its continued existence," she said. "The extraneous pressures currently being brought to bear by politicians of both parties upon the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies only worsen the present situation."
Despite her criticism of the bureau elsewhere in the letter, Ms. Rowley said that she believed the F.B.I. should remain intact as the nation's pre-eminent domestic intelligence agency.
"The combination of criminal and intelligence functions in one agency with the `wall down' is now the F.B.I. great advantage and certainly not a detriment," she wrote. "And the field agents I have known and worked with for over 22 years are as eminently adept at tackling sophisticated criminal and terrorist enterprises, requiring the assimilation of intelligence and long-term focused effort, as they are at addressing the shorter term criminal who-dun-its."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company