I was killing time on a back bench of an eighth floor Ramsey County courtroom on Wednesday, waiting with about 50 others for something to happen (all the action in the RNC8 case that day took place behind closed doors, as it turned out), when someone who looked familiar took a seat in the next row. Could it be Coleen Rowley, famed FBI whistleblower, TIME magazine’s 2002 Person of the Year and the Democratic-Farmer-League Party’s 2006 candidate in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District? Indeed it was.
I’d met Rowley in 2006, at her campaign fundraiser at my parents’ house. At the time, she seemed fierce and friendly, with a somewhat prim persona akin to her plaid-skirted appearance on the cover of TIME four years before. Now, a comfortably rumpled Rowley sidled into a courtroom seat with the more relaxed bearing of a street-level activist and occasional blogger. She had a stack of “Defend the RNC8!” postcards to pass out, and a lot to say.
Rowley recently submitted data requests about law enforcement during the 2008 Republican National Convention to the FBI (via the Freedom of Information Act) and to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s and St. Paul Police departments (through the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act). She expects to learn whether the surveillance and policing of 60 to 70 political organizations in St. Paul last September to protest the Republican National Convention (RNC)– as well as the surveillance of another 80 or so legal aids, independent media and artistic performance groups — was overly broad.
If it wasn’t, Rowley said that news will come as a relief to people like those she knows in CODEPINK who say they were pulled over repeatedly around the time of the RNC. But if the wide net she’s cast does snare examples of extra-constitutional overreaching, they’ll go into a book she’s working on with author William John Cox.
Rowley regaled me and Minnesota Public Radio’s Laura Yuen, who sat nearby, with stories about her early days as an FBI agent in the early 1980s. Hoover had died almost a decade (and several reform efforts) earlier, but his ghost still hovered over the Bureau. It was Rowley’s job to respond to the very sort of data requests she now has pending about the RNC. As we watched the defense attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild kibitz at the front of the courtroom, Rowley recalled that as an FBI agent she sat among stacks of files on the Guild’s members — a throwback to Hoover’s conviction that the Guild was a communist organization.
Back then, every new lead meant a new file, Rowley said. If folksinger Burl Ives threw a party, the next day everyone in attendance had an FBI file. She suspects that won’t be the case with the 150 groups about whom she’s requested records.
Rowley said she was always proud that the FBI fought public corruption as its top priority (it’s now the agency’s fourth priority, according to an FBI spokesman I talked to separately). I asked her about reports that the FBI is looking into allegations that businessman Nasser Kazeminy funneled money to U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman through a business he controls in Texas and Coleman’s wife’s employer in Minnesota. Does the FBI really open different levels of cases with some (like the Coleman cash question, reportedly) termed mere inquiries while others are full-fledged investigations? Rowley, who retired in 2004, said that in her day two levels of investigations did exist but the lesser was rarely used, and in any case the difference between them was nominal at best — you either had a case worth pursuing or you didn’t.
Rowley spoke in an elevated whisper — this being a courtroom, although the judge never appeared — that later put me in mind of the lower, hoarser whisper that actor Hal Holbrooke used in the “All the President’s Men” film to portray of Mark “Deep Throat” Felt, who had been Hoover’s second-in-command at the FBI. Felt died Thursday, having revealed himself as Deep Throat but taking with him any key to the internal contradictions of a man who helped engineer both the illegal surveillance on dissidents and the downfall of a president who put such dirty tricks to his own political ends. Next time I see her, I’ll ask how Rowley — who put her own livelihood at risk to root out wrongdoing within the FBI — how she felt about Felt.