June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

The decision to speak out did not come easily. Coleen Rowley, after all, has dedicated her professional life to the FBI for 21 years and will be eligible for retirement, with full perks, in 2005. Moreover, because her husband, Ross, is a stay-at-home dad, Rowley, 47, provides the sole income to support the comfortable suburban life they have made for their four children in woodsy Apple Valley, Minn. Yet what Rowley was contemplating in her capacity as chief counsel of the FBI’s Minneapolis office put all that at risk. “She couldn’t sleep for two days,” says Jane David, one of Rowley’s best friends since kindergarten. And then? “She got up and wrote the letter.”

“The letter,” as anyone within shockwave radius of Capitol Hill now knows, is a 13-page, single-spaced indictment of the FBI that accuses the agency of ignoring important intelligence prior to Sept. 11—and then deliberately hiding those oversights after the World Trade Center disaster. The document, addressed to FBI Director Robert Mueller, alleges that last August bureaucrats at agency headquarters hampered attempts by Rowley’s own office to launch an aggressive investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui, the man who would later emerge as the so-called “20th hijacker.” In the aftermath of 9/11, she writes, “a delicate and subtle shading/skewing of facts by you and others at the highest levels of FBI management has occurred and is occurring.” The bottom line? “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. 11th.”

Although explosive, her charges, which were excerpted on Time‘s Web site, might have had less impact were it not for Rowley’s solid reputation. “When I think of her,” says retired FBI agent David Cid, a Minneapolis colleague, “two words come to mind: character and conscience.” Moreover, hers is not a lone voice crying in the dark. “In Minneapolis,” says a former FBI agent in Minnesota, “the agents are behind her 100 percent.” Since hand-delivering copies to two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 21, Rowley has retreated into silence, offering little more than “Que sera, sera.”

Now the 37 members of a bipartisan Senate-House committee, which on June 4 will commence a probe of the Sept. 11 attacks, are champing at the bit to grill Rowley. “She will be a star witness,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is on the panel. “This letter makes you slap your hand on your forehead and say, ‘How can this be?’ It is staggering.” Already the letter has prompted Mueller to announce plans for a major reorganization of the FBI.

Growing up in tiny New Hampton, Iowa, Rowley, the oldest of five children in a tight-knit Lutheran family, probably never thought about becoming a whistle-blower; she did set her sights, very early, on becoming an agent. “Coleen and I played ‘spying’ when we were in grade school,” says pal Jane David. “She’s wanted to be an FBI and CIA agent since she was a little girl.”

Always a perfectionist, Rowley was valedictorian of her class at New Hampton High School. She earned a degree in French at Wartburg, a liberal arts Lutheran college, then a law degree from University of Iowa in 1980 before signing on with the FBI. As her brood expanded to four—her children now range from college age down to 7—she continued to climb the agency ladder, moving the family from New Jersey to California to Nebraska before settling in Minnesota around 1990. A private person, “She never did say too much about her job,” says her mother, Doris Cheney. “All she ever told me is that she didn’t think the FBI was doing what it should be doing.”

Even so, says Jane David, Rowley was not planning to make her complaints public until she received a May 17 phone call from the Congressional committee summoning her to Washington. “She had to tell the truth, she had to,” says her friend. “She’s a wonderful writer and knew she might not come across as well as she hoped verbally.” Now, as Rowley braces to appear before the committee, she and husband Ross are also preparing for a triathlon, a June 2 torturethon of swimming, biking and running. Compared with her coming testimony, it may seem easy.

Jill Smolowe

Jane Sims Podesta in Washington, D.C., Ellen Piligian in Detroit, Pam Grout in New Hampton and John Slania in Chicago

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