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So she went to the office and sat at her desk writing until her husband Ross called 16 hours later, Around 7 p.m. By Monday morning, she had written 13 pages. This is more than just my own notes to myself, she decided. And she knew the memo was explosive enough for her to need some protection. Just 2 1/2 years from retirement and her family's sole breadwinner, she tacked on two sentences of self-preservation at the last minute, asking for federal whistle-blower protection. At the time, she did not know exactly what it was--nor that the legislation offered FBI employees a weak shield. The next day, in Washington, she dropped the memo off with receptionists for FBI director Robert Mueller and two members of the Senate Committee on Intelligence. Surely, they were too far above the fray to want to punish her. She had no appointments; she just wandered around until she found their offices, getting lost at least once. Then she walked outside and hailed a cab. "I went, 'Whew!' and collapsed in the back seat," Rowley remembers. She headed back to the airport, secure in the comfort that comes from taking a steaming load of worry and shifting it onto the boss's lap. Says her husband: "I remember her saying, 'I hope somebody reads it.'"
The next evening Rowley was back in the Minneapolis FBI office, working late. The designated representative had gone home, so Rowley got the call from CNN. A reporter had heard that someone from the office had written some kind of letter. Rowley, a 22-year veteran of the bureau, says she had never imagined that her name or her letter would get out, and was uncharacteristically speechless. "It was like 'Ohmigosh! Ohmigosh!'" She remembers. "I said, 'well, I can't help you. I don't know what you're talking about. Click! And I ran out of the office."
And so it was that Rowley became the FBI's public conscience. Two weeks later, she was called back to Washington to testify in the open, her Coke-bottle glasses slipping down her nose, her circa-1985 hand-me-down plaid suit crying to be put back into the closet. She issued damning indictments--agents were drowning in paperwork and lived in fear of offending the higher-ups. "There's a certain pecking order, and it's pretty strong," she said. "It's very rare that someone picks up the phone and calls a rank or two above themselves." And in the next breath she offered specific solutions: Can you give us a computer system that allows us to search phrases like "flight schools"? She was quick to admit what she did not know. When Senator Maria Cantwell asked her what advice she would give the President, she demurred. "I really can't presume to give advice at such a high level," she said. In short, she made the Congressmen look like interns on the set of the Coleen Rowley show. The only time she seemed perplexed during her D.C. visit was when a horde of reporters followed and shouted at her as she tried to hail a cab.
For Americans watching this odd display, the message was clear: This mid-level lawyer at a field office in the Midwest had higher expectations for the FBI than its top leaders. The bureau could be great, was her message, if only it put the goal of protecting Americans above the goal of protecting itself, if only agents were not rewarded for sitting still.