Mueller: Justice Department to launch FBI probe
CNN Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- FBI Director Robert Mueller has announced that the Justice Department will probe an FBI agent's complaint that her agency hindered efforts to investigate a man arrested before the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Coleen Rowley wrote a letter this week to Mueller and key members of Congress complaining about the way FBI headquarters handled information on suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui and other terrorism-related investigations, according to sources familiar with the letter.
"It was devastating," said one senator who read the letter. "She takes issue point by point with the director on how he has characterized [how] the FBI headquarters handled information from the Minneapolis field office."
Moussaoui was arrested last August, about three weeks before the September 11 attacks. He aroused suspicions at a Minnesota aviation school, and Minneapolis agents sought to investigate him further.
For example, they unsuccessfully sought a warrant from headquarters that would have allowed them to search Moussaoui's computer hard drive. At that time, headquarters responded there was not enough probable cause for such a move, FBI sources said.
Letter passed to Justice
Mueller issued a statement late Thursday confirming receipt of the letter, and said he had promptly sent it to the Justice Department.
"I immediately referred this matter out of the FBI to the Inspector General for investigation," the statement said. "I respect that process and all the independence and protections it affords."
Mueller said he would not comment on the specifics of Rowley's letter, but he clearly agreed with some criticism of the FBI it apparently contained. The statement indicated changes may be in store at the FBI.
"There is no room after the attacks for the types of problems and attitudes that could inhibit our efforts," Mueller said. "We can leave nothing undiscovered and unexamined as we redefine our priorities and operations."
Moussaoui was indicted last year on six conspiracy counts -- four of which carry the death penalty -- for allegedly serving as an accomplice to Osama bin Laden and the 19 hijackers who seized and crashed four U.S. jets on September 11.
After sources on Capitol Hill disclosed the existence of the letter, Rowley acknowledged to CNN that she wrote it. Rowley, who serves as chief division counsel for the Minneapolis FBI Field Division, stressed she did so solely because she felt compelled to express her own personal views.
"I had to do what I believed was right," she said, while not confirming the content of her letter.
Congressional sources said Rowley wrote the letter to Mueller on Tuesday, and copies went to Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama and Dianne Feinstein, D-California, as well as the special Joint Intelligence Committee investigating why intelligence and law enforcement agencies did not uncover plans for the attacks.
Senators said the letter was hand-delivered the same day. They have turned the letters over to committee investigators, giving it "classified" status.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, and Rep. Porter Goss, R-Florida, who head up that committee, announced Friday they intend to start the first round of public hearings on their investigation the first week in June.
Sources: Rowley sought whistleblower status
Congressional sources familiar with the letter said Rowley clearly intended to be a whistleblower about problems within the FBI and has sought official whistleblower status that affords her certain legal protections.
One source said Rowley's 13-page letter details how the FBI in Washington ignored and hindered attempts by the Minneapolis office to flag information about questionable activity.
Rowley, said one source, made it clear that the FBI headquarters "was misrepresenting what Minneapolis was telling them."
For her part, Rowley insisted she did not write the letter at anyone's request or claim to represent the official views of the Minneapolis office.
Rowley refused to discuss the substance of the letter or her complaints with FBI management.
She also refused to comment on whether the FBI or lawmakers have summoned her to Washington.
One veteran FBI agent and friend of Rowley expressed long-standing admiration of her intelligence and independence. "She says what she thinks. I really admire her spunk," the FBI agent told CNN.
Another FBI source said Rowley is known for speaking her mind, but suggested this most recent move might not be "career enhancing."
Justice officials 'shocked'
Rowley's letter and the congressional reaction appeared to strike a nerve at the Justice Department as well as the FBI.
One Justice Department official stressed the department is now better able to seek a warrant that allows surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes. The Justice Department had rejected such an eavesdropping warrant, called a FISA warrant, requested by the FBI in Minneapolis following the Moussaoui arrest, but before the September attack.
"The Patriot Act broke down some of the walls that made information sharing difficult," said a senior Justice Department official. "It enhanced the department's ability to seek a FISA warrant when the collection of foreign intelligence is a significant purpose of the FISA search or surveillance, rather than the purpose," the official said.
Another federal law enforcement official who asked not to be identified Thursday night vented his anger not at Rowley or the FBI, but at the lawmakers who leaked portions of Rowley's letter.
"We were shocked and disappointed that congressional committees showed reckless disregard in leaking her classified letter," the official said.
In another development, the FBI sent a nationwide alert Thursday night to state and local law enforcement agencies that it has received information about a possible threat from underwater divers, but the agency emphasizes the alert carries no specific information.
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