Jewish World Review March 12, 2003 / 8 Adar II, 5763
Steven M. Gorelick
A prophet becomes
At first, I imagined her as a biblical prophet. She even looked the part.
Rageful and indignant, she pleaded that we recognize and atone for the
incompetence, the bureaucratic negligence, the apathy that led us to the edge of the
How, then, did a prophet become a pest? How did heroism become hubris?
FBI agent Coleen Rowley--prophet, whistle-blower, truth-teller--has been a national
hero for the last 10 months. Last year, she told FBI Director Robert Mueller that senior
FBI officials had blocked an investigation into suspected terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui
and refused to consider the importance of his arrest a month before the terrorist
And it got worse. Apparently, some agents were so frustrated by the apathetic
response from officials in Washington that they sought to go around the chain of
command and notify the CIA directly. Her subsequent testimony before the Senate
Judiciary Committee was the stuff of high drama.
It's hard to imagine that the FBI was thrilled by her public revelations. But something
unusual happened last year when agent Rowley's letter was revealed. To the credit of
the FBI, and to Mueller in particular, anger and embarrassment were quickly replaced
by an admirable and sincere desire to retool the agency for the new war against
terrorism. More agents were hired. A stagnant bureaucracy was reorganized. The
entire function of intelligence analysis was enhanced and expanded. The CIA and FBI
seemed to recognize that they worked for the same government.
But what are we supposed to make of Rowley's latest warning about a lack of
preparedness at the FBI? How are we supposed to react? Exactly what is it that
Mueller is supposed to do?
We live in fragile and vexing times. Alert levels change without warning. Threats are
predicted without details. We are told to be careful, but we have no idea what to be
careful about. We may forget whether a red or orange alert is more serious, but few of
us are able to look at our children without wondering if we chose the right duct tape or
picked the right safe room.
So what did Rowley toss into this current volatile mix of public fear? She reveals--get
ready for this--that the FBI is unprepared to cope with the terrorism that may follow a
U.S. attack on Iraq. Gee, thanks. Who is unprepared? Who should be doing what?
What is it that the FBI is not doing? This letter was as specific as an orange alert. We
might even call it a "Rowley-alert," a vague and speculative announcement about a
non-specific threat--the last thing a fearful public needs.
Rowley, you used your first 15 minutes of fame with distinction. Because an initially
stubborn and intractable bureaucracy eventually took you seriously, we are a safer
country. But if all you have to offer us this time are vague and sinister warnings that
more attacks are on the way, your "Rowley-alert" is not helpful. You are filling a society
rife with fear and confusion with even more fear and confusion and--unlike your first
warning--have provided no specifics that demand a response. All you've done is scare
Heroes and prophets are particularly vulnerable to overreaching and hubris. Public
acclaim and media attention sometimes leads the anointed to imagine an unlimited
public franchise, in which every utterance will be welcomed as important and
appreciated. It is sad to see this happening, given your enormous contribution to
But if there is line between heroism and hubris, you crossed it.
Steven M. Gorelick teaches and
serves in the administration at The City University of
New York. His research focuses on the mass media
and the dynamics of public panic. Comment by clicking here.
© 2003, Steven M. Gorelick