Few Americans love anything about their government as much as Coleen Rowley loved the FBI. When she was in the fifth grade, Rowley wrote a letter to the bureau's headquarters in Washington and got back a booklet called 100 Facts About the FBI. From that point on, she dreamed of becoming an agent. Friends say she protested when her dean at the University of Iowa Law School refused to let an FBI recruiter on campus; she lost the battle but applied for a job on her own and was hired as a special agent after earning her law degree in 1980. She took pride in being a pioneer, part of the first wave of women fighting to be taken seriously in the bureau's male-dominated, button-down culture. She worked her way up the ladder as an FBI lawyer--handling applications for searches and wiretaps, working organized-crime cases in New York City and becoming, in 1995, chief counsel in the Minneapolis field office. She won a reputation as a highly disciplined professional, opinionated, principled and supremely devoted to her job. For seven years in the 1990s, she doubled as chief spokeswoman for the Minneapolis office, fending off the media hordes during big cases like the 1999 arrest of St. Paul housewife Sara Jane Olson, a former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army who had been on the lam for two decades. Despite the stress and the risks, Rowley, a suburban mother of four, has never worked anywhere else. She is the family breadwinner, a competitive long-distance runner, a person, by all accounts, of substance.
All of which helps explain why friends and colleagues of Rowley were impressed but not altogether surprised when she put her career on the line last week to blow the whistle on the terrible failings of her beloved FBI. "She is the kind of person who always does what is right when nobody's watching," says one friend. "That is why she came out." American life seems uniquely capable of producing stories like hers--a loyal public servant who clings to her belief in the system until a betrayal of that faith makes it impossible to stay silent. Rowley, unable to sleep at 3 a.m. one night in early May, drove to the office and wrote the first draft of a memo. She spent a week fine-tuning it, setting it aside for days, anguishing and at times doubting whether she could go through with it. Summoning her courage last Tuesday, she at last fired off the 13-page letter ("from the heart," she writes) to her ultimate boss, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and flew to Washington to hand-deliver copies to two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and meet with committee staffers. The letter accuses the bureau of deliberately obstructing measures that could have helped disrupt the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI responded by marking the letter CLASSIFIED.