Man Without Qualities

Friday, May 31, 2002

Peggy Noonan's Curious Take II

UPDATE: This AP newstory is characteristic of the obtuse media coverage of the Rowley memorandum and its author. The story makes no mention that the reporter made an effort to interview or even identify anyone in FBI(Washington) involved with the matter, or anyone at either the US Attorney office in Minneapolis or FBI(Washington) who worked with prior requests by Agent Rowley to obtain searches based on her concept of "probable cause" in the past.

Agent Rowley's memo states that one of her Washington contacts had told her that they didn't want her to disrupt other investigations. But the AP reporter makes no effort to determine what those "other investigations" might have been. Nor does the reporter make any effort to determine whether Agent Rowley might have disrupted other investigations in the past by taking a too-aggressive position as to what constitutes "probable cause' and related concepts.

As an aside: Agent Rowley is described as a 'triathelete." Does that suggest a personality that is more or less aggressive than the average? Just asking.


One of the Man Without Qualities' admirable readers-who-write (or writing-readers) writes to ask why I so discount Ms. Noonan's suggestion that a bin Laden mole may have been behind Agent Rowley's (or was it Mulder's?) difficulty in obtaining the FISA warrant she desired.

It normally helps in these matters to go back to the original, which in this case is the portion of Agent Rowley's memo reading:

"During the early aftermath of September 11th, when I happened to be recounting the pre-September 11th events concerning the Moussaoui investigation to other FBI personnel in other divisions or in FBIHQ, almost everyone's first question was "Why?--Why would an FBI agent(s) deliberately sabotage a case? (I know I shouldn't be flippant about this, but jokes were actually made that the key FBIHQ personnel had to be spies or moles, like Robert Hansen, who were actually working for Osama Bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis' effort.) Our best real guess, however, is that, in most cases avoidance of all "unnecessary" actions/decisions by FBIHQ managers (and maybe to some extent field managers as well) has, in recent years, been seen as the safest FBI career course. Numerous high-ranking FBI officials who have made decisions or have taken actions which, in hindsight, turned out to be mistaken or just turned out badly (i.e. Ruby Ridge, Waco, etc.) have seen their careers plummet and end. This has in turn resulted in a climate of fear which has chilled aggressive FBI law enforcement action/decisions. In a large hierarchal bureaucracy such as the FBI, with the requirement for numerous superiors approvals/oversight, the premium on career-enhancement, and interjecting a chilling factor brought on by recent extreme public and congressional criticism/oversight, and I think you will see at least the makings of the most likely explanation."

As the reader can see, Ms. Rowley characterizes the mole explanation as a "joke," "flippant" and something other than a "real guess." She will have to be asked further about this, given the uproar the memo has created, but at this juncture it is clear Agent Rowley did not intend her suggestion seriously. If she did, she could have simply included a line such as "while this explanation was offered as a joke here in the field, I suggest that the Washington office may wish to look into the matter solely for the sake of completeness." But she didn't.

So as a preliminary matter, Ms. Noonan is diverging seriously from what appears to be Agent Rowley's meaning. But then why not diverge from the meaning of the rest of Agent Rowley's memo and just throw it away? What is it about this bit that authorizes us to disregard its plain meaning? On a more general note, Agent Rowley also describes her concerns arising "[d]ue to the frankness with which I have expressed myself and my deep feelings on these issues." Does an informed person take at face value an intelligence agent's statement that she is acting out of "frankness" and "deep feelings?" Intelligence agents are paid and expected to be other than that when the need arises. And it is also worth noting that although Agent Rowley's memo is interesting and useful, it is also spectacularly self serving.

Contrary to Agent Rowley's suggestion, a hypothetical mole could operate nothing like Robert Hansen did (not surprisingly, since she made her suggestion as a joke). Hansen was just a spy whose role was to act as normally as possible within the FBI, and then take information. What Agent Rowley is positing is someone who makes spectacularly twisted decisions in full view of other, non-conspiring experts without them ever catching on. In other words, Agent Rowley is conjuring someone who is an evil genius - more like a Palpatine than a Hansen.

Nor could such a mole have been acting alone within FBI(Washington). As Agent Rowley's memo makes clear, the decision to deny her warrant request appears to have been a group effort. So we need several evil geniuses - where George Lucas had to make due with only one!

And what about the CIA? Agent Rowley's memo says that the field office eventually tried to go around FBI(Washington) by asking the CIA to help - but after getting the story from the field office the CIA refused to help. If the matter was a clear as Agent Rowley suggests, why would the CIA not act? Were they in cahoots with bin Laden, too?

Further, Agent Rowley's frustration at getting other people in law enforcement to agree with her concept of "probable cause" (the point that held up her FISA warrant) was not limited to her FBI(Washington) superiors. She had similar problem with the local United States Attorney (which was not the entity that held up her FISA request), as she writes:

"[A]lthough I thought probable cause existed ("probable cause" meaning that the proposition has to be more likely than not, or if quantified, a 51% likelihood), I thought our United States Attorney's Office, (for a lot of reasons including just to play it safe) in regularly requiring much more than probable cause before approving affidavits, (maybe, if quantified, 75%-80% probability and sometimes even higher)..."

Are the people at the Minneapolis United States Attorney's office also in on the "conspiracy." After all couldn't we say d'apres Agent Rowley "Why?--Why would an assistant United States attorney deliberately sabotage a case?" And it appears not to have just been this one case with which Agent Rowley had such problems with "sabotage."

The last portion of the memo quoted above rather suggests that Agent Rowley may have had something of a reputation within both the US Attorney office and FBI(Washington) of being rather more relaxed in her concept of "probable cause" than those other people felt comfortable with. The existence of such a reputation would certainly help explain FBI(Washington)'s reluctance to see things her way - and would also help explain why she might not have been optimistic about working things through the US Attorney's office, either. Once the CIA made a few calls, such a reputation would also help explain what happened in that quarter.

Can a conspiracy be imagined? Of course it can. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds - and the most foolish consistency of all is the ready belief in conspiracies.

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