How One Right-Winger Tried to Take Over the Legacy of 9/11

When George Bush’s reelection campaign ran ads containing footage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Debra Burlingame’s ire was directed not at Bush’s admen but at “9/11 family members” whose relatives had been killed. These people, said Burlingame, “enjoy the cloak of deference that has been graciously conferred upon them by the public, politicians and, most significantly, the media.” The charge carried some heft: as sister of Charles Burlingame, pilot of the doomed American Airlines flight that slammed into the Pentagon, she was herself the beneficiary of such deference -- particularly from the press.

This hasn’t changed a bit, even now, as Burlingame’s opposition to Park51 (frequently called the “Ground Zero Mosque” by the ignorant and bigoted alike) has made her a go-to source for pithy, cutting quotes. Thanks to the controversy over the unfunded, nonexistent and probably-never-to-be-built edifice, she regularly opines on the dangers of the proposed Islamic community center as well as subjects that are ostensibly out of her purview. For instance, any real knowledge she may have of Western philosophy (for much of the Muslim world “the enlightenment hasn't even happened yet,” which would be news to a certain G-20 democracy) and DOJ appointments (“...[Neal] Katyal is probably the best of the bunch”) is a well-kept secret.

According to LexisNexis, Burlingame was cited 87 times in August alone, a level of ubiquity even she might agree warrants a look under the cloak. Until now most of the attention paid to Burlingame has been forward-looking and coated with gauze. The New York Times profiled her in 2005 when she lobbied against the proposed International Freedom Center, but noted only that she “graduated from Cardozo, practiced law for two years, and spent five years at Court TV before moving to Los Angeles to start a production company.” Not a word about what kind of law Burlingame practiced, her duties at Court TV or what become of the production company. Also absent was a quote from the Center’s founders -- Chelsea Piers president Tom Bernstein and Dow Jones vice president Richard Tofel -- in response to Burlingame’s charge that “they're treating 9/11 like a 3,000-person car crash.”  (Cardozo’s alumnae office says only that Burlingame was class of ‘93, and Turner Broadcasting System won’t comment on former Court TV employees.)

This is quite the kid gloves treatment for someone who in the three scrutiny-free years following 9/11 accomplished quite a lot. In fact, a review of her record past and present suggests that Burlingame uses her survivor’s patina for purposes that are occasionally admirable. More often than not, though, she resembles a political operative who frequently exploits the trauma of 9/11 at the expense of the good name and reputation of her adversaries. (Burlingame did not respond to questions submitted by AlterNet.)

Ground Zero and the International Freedom Center

In hindsight, you can see the International Freedom Center controversy and Burlingame’s part in it coming a mile away. But at the time, questioning the credentials of IFC’s founder, real estate developer Tom Bernstein -- a longtime friend and former business partner of George W. Bush -- was strange.

Conceived in late 2001, the Center was modeled on the United States Holocaust Museum. The plans for Bernstein’s brainchild included “a gallery devoted to the world’s sympathetic response to the attacks, an exhibition on freedom-related political documents like the Declaration of Independence, and a salute to freedom fighters around the world.” Slated to be built along Ground Zero’s edge, the project was seen as vanilla enough for five Fortune 500 corporations (including American Express) to quickly commit to its funding.

Even so, hundreds of September 11 victims' relatives were opposed, claiming the project would “dishonor the memory of their relatives,” reported the Times. The Center, they charged, “would shift the focus from the victims of the terror attack toward political harangues against United States’ foreign and domestic policy.”

As it happened, Burlingame was perfectly positioned to magnify the relatives’ discontent. She’d recently been appointed to the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, the sole purpose of which was to raise $500 million for the construction of a performing-arts center and memorial designed by Michael Arad and Frank Gehry, respectively. The board had august company: four ex-presidents, financiers Maurice Greenberg and Henry Kravis, and much of the New York social register.

Mayor Bloomberg, facing an easy reelection, was not supportive of Burlingame or the other relatives. “It's a fantastic design,” he noted during the Freedom Center plan’s unveiling, even as he acknowledged the contentiousness of the project. “You are never going to please everybody,” he said, “[b]ut we're trying to remember those who have passed and at the same time build for the future.”

In a move that echoes her current involvement in the Park51 project, Burlingame took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. She wrote that Ground Zero had been "hijacked" and "stolen" from her and spun conspiracy theories about IFC board members Anthony Romero, the director of the ACLU -- who wanted exhibits to reflect the curtailment of civil liberties -- and Eric Foner,  the eminent historian, for the crime of calling the Bush administration’s rhetoric “apocalyptic.”

The Journal editorial was brutally inaccurate. As the Nation’s Alisa Solomon wrote a few months later:

She didn't mention, for instance, that the people she named represented only five of the project's eighty-nine advisers and board members; she tarred Eric Foner by associating him with an infamous remark made by another Columbia University faculty member at an antiwar teach-in in 2003, even though Foner had denounced the remark at the event. Most misleading of all, perhaps, Burlingame made it seem as if the IFC would be taking the place of a memorial and 9/11 museum, not standing alongside those edifices.

Foner resigned. (“I have never met or written a word about Burlingame,” Foner says in an e-mail. “You'd have to ask her why she attacked me.”) In September 2005, New York Governor George Pataki announced the abandonment of the International Freedom Center proposal. Four years of work, down the tubes.


There was a time when this would have seemed improbable. Debra Burlingame still deserves credit for her very first, incredibly tenacious act after her brother was murdered.

What she wanted, quite reasonably, was to have Charles Burlingame buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where their parents had recently been interred. In an interview with Katie Couric on September 13 she said, “We know that he always planned to be buried [in Arlington] when his life would end.”

The Army said no. As a retired reservist, the 51-year-old wasn’t eligible for his own plot for another eight years. A compromise was offered: Charles Burlingame could be interred in his parent’s plot. Debra Burlingame refused and wrangled a number of sympathetic senators, including Rick Santorum, R-PA, George Allen, R-VA and John Warner, R-VA, in a bid to change the law.

Success: After Warner introduced legislation to waive the age requirement for burial, the Army agreed to a one-time exception. Charles Frank Burlingame was buried on December 12, “with seven members of a Navy honor guard firing three shots each into the sky.”

It would be more than a half-year before Debra Burlingame would resurface.

The 9/11 Commission and the Flag

Burlingame’s next foray into national issues occurred in June 2002, months after Joseph Lieberman, I-CT, introduced S. 1867 to establish a national commission tasked to produce a “full and complete accounting of the circumstances surrounding the attacks, and the extent of the United States' preparedness for, and response to, the attacks.”

There are indications Burlingame was not opposed to the commission but simply skeptical. During a rally in Washington, D.C. organized by one Lorie Van Auken, Burlingame told the Record, “It shouldn’t be held hostage to Beltway politics.” She worried, reported Congressional Quarterly, that the commission would be “politics as usual, with finger-pointing and agency-covering.”

Somehow amid the hubbub around Lieberman’s bill Burlingame found time to lend her expanding profile to a local issue -- the restriction of public displays of Old Glory by her West Los Angeles condo board. Burlingame sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation to overturn the existing rights of condo boards and homeowner associations to “govern various aspects of owners’ and residents' conduct.” The bill passed, slightly amended, with no discernible opposition. Not long after this small victory, shortly after Thanksgiving, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States was established.

Burlingame’s turn against the 9/11 Commission is difficult to explain without ascribing partisan motives -- a rationale she always strenuously denied. But please, find another explanation for the contempt in which Burlingame held people who pushed for the Commission, and her assertions on the eve of Condoleezza Rice’s testimony that the “fix is in” and the testimony would be used to “embarrass or discredit the Bush administration.”

Most of her scorn was directed at Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken, and Mindy Kleinberg -- all of whom lost their husbands on September 11, 2001. By June 2004, the four women, known as “the Jersey Girls,” were on the precipice of a decidedly Pyrrhic victory: the Commission in whose creation they were instrumental was mere weeks from delivering its findings. The involvement of the Jersey Girls was not, as Republicans alleged, simply cosmetic: without them Henry Kissinger might have remained chairman and made a mockery of its conclusions.

Burlingame was not among their admirers. Breitweiser, Casazza, Van Auken and Kleinberg, she told the Telegraph, were “rock stars of grief” who had outstayed their welcome. “People are getting sick of them because they are being so demanding.”

The (Non) Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, cited by the 9/11 Commission as “the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks,” was arraigned at a Guantanamo Bay military tribunal in early June 2008. The New York Daily News reported that of all the 9/11 family members only Burlingame had been invited to the $12 million “Expeditionary Legal Complexin Cuba to observe the proceedings.

A number of 9/11 family members were outraged. One wept. They had been blindsided, apparently only learning of their exclusion from the Daily News. Relatives of several 9/11 victims sent a letter to Susan Crawford, head of Guantanamo's military commissions since 2007. They charged that the presence of Burlingame, “a staunch supporter of this administration and the military commission system ... is but the latest example of a covert, politicized military commission system that has little hope of bringing any legitimate outcome."

Burlingame, in turn, alleged that the Daily News and its reporter, James Meek, were “dishonest" and knew that any trial would “be broadcast on closed-circuit TV and all 9/11 family members will be able to monitor the gavel-to-gavel proceedings from remote locations here in the United States.”

Ultimately, Burlingame did not attend the arraignment; the Department of Defense told her to stay home because they did not have time to implement a lottery system for 9/11 attendees. Former Pentagon spokesman JD Gordon attributes the incident to a "misunderstanding," noting that Burlingame had been invited as part of an established civilian observer program, separate from the DoD's 9/11 victim family member program.

Echalar v. 9/11 Families

Burlingame’s claim to dominion over the legacy of 9/11 manifested itself in venues far afield of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In November 2005, 13 foreign-born residents sued Maryland state agencies and officials, alleging the state’s driver's license requirements for foreign-born applicants violated their civil rights. For example, noted an attorney for the plaintiffs, a foreign-born applicant often waited “weeks or months” for an appointment punitively far from home.

In response, Burlingame and 9-11 Families for a Secure America filed a motion to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, claiming that “the injuries suffered by their Maryland members resulted in significant part from Maryland's negligence in issuing identification cards.” (What went unmentioned was that the 9/11 terrorists were in the United States legally.) FSA further claimed they would “suffer pain, fear and anxiety” if the court acceded to the wishes of the plaintiffs, and that to do so would “increase the risk of...mass slaughter or terrorism.”

A Baltimore City Circuit Court judge told the group that the tie between state license law and terrorism was so tenuous that they lacked a “particularized interest” in the outcome. Basically: Mind your own business.

Finally, in August 2007 with no fanfare and little press, Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals affirmed the prior ruling. The Court, in a delightfully prickly decision, observed that the “desire to avoid future terrorist attacks on innocents is shared by most, if not all, reasonable persons.”

Guantanamo Bay and the Uighurs

Burlingame’s crusades were not limited to terrorists or Maryland’s undocumented immigrants. In May 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that 17 Uighurs were cleared for release from Guantanamo Bay. These particular Chinese Muslims were, like a high percentage of Guantanamo detainees, not captured on a battlefield and an appeals court ruled a year prior they could not be classified as “enemy combatants.” 

Burlingame criticized the decision, branded the Uighers “terrorists,” and not-so-subtly conflated them with Abdul Haq -- alleged to have planned terrorist operations in China and since killed -- and Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who pled guilty to conspiracy to provide material support to Al Qaeda.

Burlingame’s preference, apparently, is to keep Guantanamo Bay open indefinitely. In a column for Andrew Breitbart’s last December, she labeled the Obama administration's intention to close the prison “nothing more than moral vanity and rank political theater aimed at satisfying his liberal soul-mates at the ACLU and Human Rights First.” 

Keeping America...Safe?

The mission of Keep America Safe, the plucky little 501(c)(4) founded last October by Burlingame, Elizabeth Cheney and William Kristol, is “to provide information for concerned Americans about critical national security issues.” However, it seems to be primarily concerned with scuttling plans for an Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero, selling bumper stickers claiming “Gitmo saves lives,” and, as Matthew Duss put it, “taking a power drill to the fear center of the American brain and leaving the bloody remains of factual accuracy and good taste in its wake.”

The outfit is backed by Melvin Sembler, a former RNC finance chair, ambassador to Italy and chair of Scooter Libby's defense fund who made millions as a shopping center developer and who has saturated the GOP with cash for decades. (He also, along with his wife Betty, ran a rehab clinic where many teen patients say they were abused.)

One of KAS’s early high-profile initiatives was a December 5, 2009 rally in New York’s Foley Square in protest of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to give Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 conspirators the right to a civilian trial. According to its 990, KAS spent more than $30,000 -- not a fortune, but not chump change either. Still, KAS would have gotten its money’s worth if, per the 990, 4,000 people had actually shown up on that rainy day.


According to multiple news reports the real number was closer to “a few hundred.” Even the Weekly Standard, which publishes Burlingame’s work, tallied 1,500.

Aaron Harison, executive director of Keep America Safe, told me the press reports were wrong. The 4,000 figure was accurate, he said, and came from “eyewitness accounts, myself included. There was certainly way more than a couple of hundred. I was personally there.” He sent along this rally footage, which some may find persuasive, or not. Unfortunately, the NYPD says its policy is to not provide crowd estimates.


This brings us to late summer, a season in which a local zoning matter has, thanks in large part to Burlingame's efforts, roiled a nation. With support from KAS and her ancillary foundation 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America, Burlingame’s opposition to Park51 has made her a star. Now, when she picks a fight with Mayor Bloomberg, both names are given equal weight.

Burlingame has played the game brilliantly. She was on the record in opposition to the project as early as May 24, well before 99 percent of America had heard of either Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf or his wife, Daisy Khan. In a 9/11 Families press release, she said, “We do not accept the Cordoba organization's view that we need Imam Rauf to lecture us about religious tolerance in a city still dealing with the consequences of the attack that he claims we brought on ourselves.”

Eminently quotable, Burlingame has made specious claims about the Imam and Cordoba House in interview after interview: She called it a “recruiting center for terrorism” (Daily News), “propaganda” (Associated Press), and claimed it “embraces the very Shariah Law that terrorists point to as their justification for what they did.” Of Muslims she said, “They don't believe that man-made laws supersede Allah's law” (Human Events).

This ugly campaign -- driven mainly by Burlingame’s proprietary view of Ground Zero -- is uncomfortably reminiscent of the quashing of the International Freedom Center. Richard Tofel, now general manager of ProPublica, offered some perspective. He says in an e-mail that Burlingame’s two campaigns are only similar “in the sense that she twists some facts and ignores others altogether. But she showed no religious bigotry last time.” Her opposition to Park51, he says, is “rooted in a toxic combination of [an] attempt to gain partisan advantage and simple religious bigotry,” noting her conspicuous lack of objection to strip clubs, fast food joints and OTB establishments, all of which are even closer to Ground Zero.

Tofel worries that the current fight, unlike the International Freedom Center row, “has the potential for far more damage to our country.” 

Perhaps Debra Burlingame really is driven by bigotry and partisan gain. But maybe even thats too complicated. A simpler answer, I think, may be found in a July 7, 2005 appearance on Fox News:

CAVUTO: Are you just saddened every time you see yet another terror attack?

 BURLINGAME: I'm angered every time I see another terror attack. In fact, on the last anniversary of September 11, someone said to me, Debra, do you miss the unity? And I said, no. I miss the anger.

By that metric, the last nine years of Debra Burlingame’s life have been a magnificent success. Unfortunately, the anger that sustains Burlingame also inspires acts by her fellow sympathizers that are disconcertingly reminiscent of 1963 Birmingham. A credulous media and an overly sympathetic public, both of whom are unwilling to view Burlingame as something other than an eloquent reminder of national tragedy, all but ensure these heinous incidents continue.


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