MyDD Conversation with MN-02 Candidate Colleen Rowley
by Jonathan Singer, Tue May 30, 2006 at 01:23:22 PM EDT
Last week I had the chance to speak with Colleen Rowley, one of Time magazine's people of the year in 2002 for blowing the whistle on the FBI and a current Congressional candidate in Minnesota's 2nd district.
Unfortunately, I am having some difficulty uploading the audio from the interview (I'm almost done switching over to a new system, but the move is not yet complete), but you can read a rush transcript below.
Jonathan Singer: For those who are unfamiliar with your story still, could you please share with us why you are running for Congress?
Colleen Rowley: When you said story, I couldn't help thinking of that Country/Western song, "This is My Story and I'm Sticking with It."
But in my announcement, I explained that I had witnessed pre-9/11 some of the errors in the Moussaoui case that prevented more effective investigation and could have in some ways prevented or minimized 9/11. As bad as that was, I then of course had the misfortune of witnessing a whole number of series of mistakes, almost like dominoes, since 9/11. I think in many ways the terror attacks have furnished a basis and a pretext for so much of what's gone wrong.
Singer: The FBI is investigating a number of cases of corruption right now within Congress, one of which is focusing on a Democrat, Bill Jefferson of Louisiana, and in fact just this weekend they raided his Congressional office. Now a number of Congressional leaders from both parties are up in arms because they see this as a breach of constitutional checks and balances. In other words, the executive - whether it's the FBI or any other part of the executive branch - should not be invading the offices of members of Congress even if they are corrupt. Where do you come down on the issue?
Rowley: I've just read the articles, I don't know anything, of course, first hand about this case. But in reading the articles, I had a question which was, it looked like the evidence itself was gathered late last summer, if I was reading the article right. An informant with a tape running and a payoff that occurred a long time ago. So the one question that I would have if that is correct, if my understanding again from this news article, is that's a large span of time between the time that the act occurred, the evidence was obtained and the search.
I taught 4th amendment search and seizure stuff to our agents for 13 years, and one of the critical things with a search warrant - the term is staleness - the evidence has to be fresh. Of course if a judge signs it, it means that the judge determined that it wasn't stale. That just was a question in my mind when I read the accounts.
Certainly, as a general matter, I think there are exceptions, and corruption would be the type of serious matter... It's actually very difficult to gather evidence of corruption. Of course in this case you see how the typical way is that actually there has to be a cooperating party that actually has a tape running or something because otherwise in corruption matters both parties benefit.
It's the rare case, actually... What I say when I talk about the Republican culture of corruption and cronyism - of course I use those same terms that are bandied about a lot - I said it's probably the tip of the iceberg because it's very hard to detect.
So I am definitely not against, in general... Hopefully, though, this would be the very rare case where we have the executive branch in the form of the FBI, law enforcement, raiding a legislative office. I think if it's merited and a judge has approved it - this isn't a warrantless search, this isn't like what the NSA is doing - but if a judge approves it and there's probable cause and it's a rare case, then I think that that is justified. I just think there would be a problem if this were used for political purposes, and that's why we have that third branch, the judiciary, weighing in on these things and making the final decision.
Singer: We'll get to the culture of corruption in just a moment. I want to ask you a little bit about the 4th amendment. It sounds like it's something that you know quite a bit about, and most Americans have a cursory knowledge and understanding of it. However, Bush's nominee to head the CIA, Michael Hayden, seemed to be unaware of the term "probable cause" during a speech and question and answer session at the National Press Club in January. He didn't even really think it existed, it seems, from his response to a question there. I was wondering what you made of that situation and if you think he is qualified and is able to run the CIA?
Rowley: Well you have brought up this good point about not only the NSA but also the CIA. Folks in both of those agencies - including their leaders - do not have nearly as good appreciation for constitutional rights and the bill of rights and our civil liberties as folks in criminal law enforcement. It's a stark contrast, and it's actually one of the points that I make over and over about this blending. I just wrote an Op-Ed last week that was published in the Star-Tribune that is trying to counteract this idea that in this new War on Terrorism we can't use our criminal justice system, that we are going to use, for instance, Rumsfeld's Special Operations and the CIA and military tribunals if any tribunal at all. And I've been on debate panels and really been quite active on that issue because I don't agree at all. I think our criminal justice actually system works in most cases.
And one of the downsides is exactly what you're talking about here. For instance, at Guantanamo, what was the agency, who were the agents who had an appreciation of the right against self-incrimination and the issues involving things that at least came close to torture? Well, it was the FBI. They were writing emails back saying, "Oh my goodness, this looks like it goes against everything I was ever trained on." You didn't see this on the part of the CIA or Department of Defense contractors who were doing interrogations.
I think this is a huge issue. Certainly, probable cause is the fundamental plank or principle in our criminal justice system. It means that you don't go willy-nilly, a very broad fishing expedition against everybody, that you have some way of honing in on people who have some indication that they're suspects.
And again, that's another problem with the so-called War on Terrorism, with massive intelligence collection we are not doing - or doing very little - winnowing on the front end. We're doing a massive intelligence collection, whether it's the phone data or the no tip will go uncovered. People don't know this, but for the last couple of years the FBI has changed its policy to instead of allowing agents to use their discretion and prioritize leads, and they would only follow up on those that made some sense and had some specific facts, that FBI Director Muller shortly after 9/11 decided we would have a no tip will go uncovered policy. And you couple a no tip with go uncovered with orange alerts where people are afraid and you end up with this massive intelligence collection on the front end.
I hate to go on so long.
Singer: No, that's all right.
Rowley: You're pressing buttons that are my strong suit and that are things that I talk about and I'm very upset. I don't think these things make us safer. And that's the key thing here. People think they're trading their privacy and some of their civil liberties for a measure of additional security. That's what people are lead to believe. And if that's the debate, if it's giving up some privacy for some additional security, you know what, most everyone is going to give that up. And polls have shown this, and I've overheard so many conversations about it, the so-called security moms.
Here's what I'm trying to say. I'm trying to tell people. This really is not necessarily making us safer. This widespread intelligence collection is adding hay to the haystack, and if you're looking for the needle in the haystack, it doesn't help to add hay. There's very few intelligence and security experts saying that now. There are a couple, though. So I'm hoping that that word can get out, because I think if you make this pragmatic, that it's not even helping, this isn't even effective, then I think people will begin to listen and really start judging more critically some of these initiatives.
Singer: Let's stick on this one topic instead of broadening out for just one moment. At his confirmation hearings, General Hayden said, "Sure, yes we have caught people as a result of these measures." Yet there seems to be some skepticism among the American people, or at least some segments of the American people, as to what types of plots, if any, have been foiled by these massive data collections. Do you get the sense that they are indeed stopping plots, or given the fact that there are no examples given, do you buy into the more skeptical view?
Rowley: Well, I think it's a little tiny bit of both. And you really need to have some of these great statisticians explain this to you about false positive. A secondary interview to follow up on mine is Bruce Schneier. He's written two or three books on these issues. I think he's a former NSA or CIA person himself.
You can kind of mislead people when you say, "All of these massive intelligence collections have uncovered a suspected terrorist." That's probably correct. Certainly there have been a handful, small numbers of suspected terrorists detected around the country - it's not a large number - and some of these people you can argue how dangerous they actually were. Even the Lackawanna group from Buffalo that was prosecuted, it looks like at least half of that group wasn't really serious. They went over to a training camp in Afghanistan and then said, "Oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into here?" And they probably were among the group most indoctrinated into extremist thinking and ideology that the US has uncovered.
Singer: Then you also get situations like here in Portland, Oregon where you have a lawyer -
Rowley: That's right.
Singer: - who they said was directly involved in the bombing in Madrid it turned out to be complete hooey.
Rowley: And that's exactly what I was going to move to. So when you say you've uncovered some, then you have to ask at what cost. And you just identified that lawyer who was a complete mistake, his fingerprint. I actually question the FBI's explanation a little bit, saying they were misled by a fingerprint. I think that probably wasn't the complete story there. There's some idea that also this person was improperly, mistakenly targeted prior to the mistake on the fingerprint.
When I talk about the FISA court, the secret court, it's one of the examples I use, because people say there has been no complaint of violation of civil liberties with the wall down and PATRIOT Act and the expanded use of the FISA court. Well, of course there's going to hardly ever be a chance of having a complaint because it's all secret and you never know if you've had even a secret search of your house or your computer. So, again, some of these arguments are a bit disingenuous until you appreciate the flip side of it.
Going back to what I said about an outright mistake. Besides the cost of perhaps having complete, outright mistakes, you also have how many other good leads - for instance like the Moussaoui one were not picked up on or... let's just go back to the no tip will go uncovered. If you can't really prioritize good leads from bad leads and everything needs to be handled, and the good lead comes in but now you have the one with no specificity ahead of it, it's at least hypothetically possible that you'd be out there on your wild goose chase because you weren't allowed to look at the one that had more credibility. Of course all of these tips are a question of time. The Moussaoui case showed you that if time was not a factor and you had years and years, this wouldn't be an issue, but when time can be critical, we have got to prioritize things and this massive intelligence collection can prove counterproductive and that's one of the aspects that needs to be made.
Singer: Let me ask you one more issue question before we get to a little bit of politics. The issue of Iraq is turning out to be perhaps the centeral isse of the 2006 midterms. Congressman Murtha, I'm sure you know, has a plan that would mandate the redeployment of troops from Iraq. Where do you stand on his plan, or do you have a different view on the War in Iraq?
Rowley: I'm actually hoping to get a chance - I shouldn't announce this yet because I haven't made a call - but I'm hoping to get a chance down the road to either talk to Murtha or perhaps one of his staffers, because what I see and hear of his plan, at this point in time, seems to make the most sense to me. I know there are three other Minnesota Congress persons - Betty McCollum, Oberstar and Sabo - that have signed on, and I think aren't there about 100 signers of Murtha's plan. I'm not sure about that, but I think I've been told there's about 100.
So I wanted to discuss this further from the standpoint of perhaps even identifying Congressional candidates - in a sense of giving impetus, if in fact I discuss this and this is the plan that makes the most sense, I would like to then identify how many Congressional candidates out there would add be able to add to those 100 signers.
So again I haven't made any concrete steps in that direction of even talking to Mr. Murtha, but of course I admired his speaking out. I know Walter Jones, the Republican who actually came up with the term "freedom fries" and was backing the Iraq invasion, is also another one who changed his mind about Iraq. I actually admire people who can critically think, and just because they make a mistake do not say, "Well, O.K., I made a mistake, now what do I do? I've got to dissemble and come up with rationales and whatever." You're seeing far too much of this prevention of personal embarrassment, which prevents us from doing better. I've written many, many times, I've made a ton of mistakes, even to some extent I blame myself pre-9/11 for not having done more. And to that extent I have no tolerance for people who make the mistakes but then - see this is the quagmire argument - now we made the mistake and now we're stuck and now we can't go back and unravel what we did. Part of the problem with not admitted and unraveling mistakes is you keep digging deeper and deeper and the problem doesn't get better. So I admire Murtha's stance on admitting he was wrong on this and that he was now seeking a better answer.
Singer: Final question. If there's one message you'd like to send out to the readers of the progressive blogosphere, what would that be?
Rowley: I think it's the hope situation. I'm a runner and since I can't exercise too much these days with these campaigns. I've taken to running around my neighborhood and handing out my bookmarks. I'll probably run into about a half dozen folks each time I go out or more. And I'm finding 80 percent or so - it's a really high level, and actually my suburb went narrowly for Bush in 2004 - so to now find out that 80 percent of the folks out there are kind of mad and thing the country's on the wrong track. But the issue, though, is of that 80 percent, there are even some among the Democrats some who are kind of thinking "There's nothing we can do. Things are so bad."
Just came in 10 minutes ago a lady who was Democratic inclined and said she had worked in the 2004 election, said, "I'm taking a break. I'm burned out."
So from that standpoint, I think we somehow, in the blogosphere, have got to infuse some energy and some enthusiasm and some hope into people so that they see that there is a chance. In 2006, taking back the House, all of the experts even... I've listened to Brookings Institution and Stuart Rothenberg - and they are the experts on politics - saying that we have a chance to pick up 20 to 25 seats in the House. This certainly is not the time to give up hope.
I'm critical about the quagmire that we're in, the horrible debt, the $9.6 trillion debt, quagmire in Iraq and the energy crisis. You can't downplay those problems, but on the other hand, we have got to do something. And the first step doing something is actually is to get the change in government. Again, without changing the complexion of the people who are serving in there and ridding ourselves of this special interest corruption, it's just going to get worse - far, far worse. Just to use an example, as bad as Iraq is now, which I would actually characterize as a low-grade civil war, as bad as that is, guess what? It can get worse. It can spill out of Iraq.
And if people don't get off of their butts and off of their couches... Besides the hopelessness, you always have that complacency, like it's somebody else's job. Then you have another group of people that don't want to be political. And they are mad - they have a sinking feeling in their stomachs about things not going the right way - but they are just too timid or shy to talk politics. So I think there's different reasons, but I hope the blogosphere can infuse enthusiasm and hope and activism into people so we don't let another election go by, because frankly I don't think we have the luxury of letting another election go by.
Singer: Terrific. Well, thank you so much for your time and good luck in your campaign.
Rowley: Well thank you for letting me take this time with you.
[THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.]