WASHINGTON — Coleen Rowley, the FBI agent who famously challenged her agency's pre-Sept. 11 intelligence gathering, is retiring this year with some parting advice for the bureau: Don't get overwhelmed by trying to track down every lead.
"By saying, 'No lead will go uncovered,' that will clutter the picture," she said in an interview. "We need a way to weed through the information."
Rowley was at the center of a storm of questions over the government's handling of intelligence after she criticized the agency for ignoring her pleas in the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, to investigate terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui more aggressively. He was the only person charged in the United States in the attacks.
But now, Rowley said, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
"Now that we have solicited more tips, the downside is it's more difficult to find the more significant things," she said. "We still need to use good discretion, old gumshoe detective work."
Rowley was in Washington to promote "Patriotism, Decency and Common Sense," a book published by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation for which she wrote a chapter on dangers to civil liberties. Contributors include Ralph Nader and former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart.
Rowley said she is not getting paid for the chapter and won't accept any money for post-FBI speeches that draw on her career. She said it would be unethical to profit from her public service.
Instead, she plans to live off her pension, which she becomes fully eligible for when she turns 50 in December.
Rowley was legal counsel in the Minneapolis field office of the FBI when, she said, top agency officials blocked her efforts to investigate Moussaoui. Last year, she became a special agent, with some of her duties focusing on intelligence gathering.
Former FBI counterterrorism chief Larry Mefford, who worked with Rowley in the Minneapolis bureau from 1992 to 1995, questioned her credentials to speak as an expert on terrorism, saying that was not the focus of her career.
"In today's world, with the threats we face today and the danger those threats pose, I don't think I'd ever say we have too much information," he said. "I do agree the challenge is what you do with the information once you get it."
Rowley said that she worked on terrorism issues both as legal counsel and special agent.
Rowley also said events in Iraq have shown she was correct in her 2003 letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller warning that an invasion could heighten terrorism threats in this country.
"Unfortunately, new enemies have been created," she said.
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