Can the FBI Punish the 9/11 Whistle-blower?

FBI Special Agent Coleen Rowley is seeking protection under whistle-blower laws after writing a memo criticizing the agency’s treatment of the Zacarias Moussaoui investigation. Will those laws protect Rowley’s job?

Probably not. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 protects federal employees who are punished or lose job status because they rat on their bosses. Most federal employees can appeal any such punishment and ask for an outside review. But bureau employees are promised only an internal investigation, severely limiting their ability to reclaim job status.

So, what happens to Rowley now? First, an FBI inspector general will investigate the allegations detailed in the memo. If the inspector general decides Rowley’s status merits a hearing, the case will be transferred to the Office of Attorney Recruitment and Management, which was given jurisdiction by the Department of Justice.

Rowley’s job might also be saved by public pressure or symbolic protection from Congress. Though they haven no formal protective powers, any Senate member may speak on her behalf when she is called to testify.

Another possible lifeline: FBI Director Robert S. Mueller himself promised whistle-blower protection to all FBI employees in a November memo. In it, he vowed not to tolerate “reprisals or intimidation” by employees against whistle-blowers.

Next question?

Explainer thanks Stephen Kohn, attorney and chairman of the board of directors of the National Whistleblower Center, and FBI spokesman Paul McCabe.