On September 11, 2001, Debra Burlingame lost her brother, Charles “Chic” Burlingame, who was the pilot of American Airlines Flight 77, which was forced to crash into the Pentagon. Now, with State Department official Liz Cheney and The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol, she’s leading a new organization devoted to keeping the public informed about national-security issues, Keep America Safe. Burlingame recently spoke to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the new group and where we are in the war on terrorism.LOPEZ: How do you know that?
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is the Obama administration keeping America safe?
DEBRA BURLINGAME: When Barack Obama was sworn in as president, I actually had a sliver of hope that he would surprise his worst critics and govern from the center — the smart pragmatist. That hope pretty much evaporated on January 22 when he signed a series of executive orders shutting the Guantanamo Bay detention center by a date certain and suspending the trial of 9/11 conspirators – who were at that moment sitting at Gitmo, crowing about their role in the murder of 3,000 of our fellow human beings. Surrounded by 16 retired admirals and generals, the signing ceremony was clearly meant to showcase Obama as a strong, decisive commander in chief who was making a clean break from the policies of the previous administration. But it was a mistake wrapped in stagecraft. It has gone downhill from there. In nine short months, the list has grown long: abandoning our allies, appeasing our enemies, wavering on the request for additional troops for the war he declared we must win, launching criminal investigations of CIA agents. I fear he is taking us back to the policies of the 1990s, and this is worse than a “pre-9/11 mindset.” At least on 9/10, we didn’t appreciate the true extent of the danger. We do now.
BURLINGAME: Obama is about image and rhetoric. The retired flag officers portrayed as battle-tested warriors applauding in that White House photo op are human-rights activists; some are lawyers — recruited, sponsored, and funded since 2005 by the organization Human Rights First. Two of them joined Majority Leader Harry Reid in a press conference back in 2007 to declare that the war in Iraq had been lost and the surge was “too little, too late.” Human Rights First bragged that the executive orders Obama signed were crafted almost word for word from the blueprint they provided. My point is, Obama and his staunchest supporters, here and abroad, actually believe that giving the kind of people who beheaded Daniel Pearl the same rights as American citizens will protect us. They think that our moral superiority over brutal jihadists will somehow impress fence-sitters in the Muslim world into rejecting violence. Well, we tried that in the 1990s, before the Iraq War, before Abu Ghraib. We put a handful of terrorists on trial in federal courts. We lobbed a few missiles at al-Qaeda from far away. None of that prevented them from killing 3,000 Americans in 102 minutes. The biggest jihadi recruiting poster of all was the sight of the Twin Towers falling. We cannot go back to those failed policies.
LOPEZ: What can the average American do about it?
BURLINGAME: There is nothing more powerful than a committed American citizen armed with facts. We have to start there: familiarize ourselves with the fundamental issues and then gather some facts. We must invest a little time in the country we will leave behind for our children. Then, we get involved — and the great thing is, we can do a lot sitting in front of the computer. For example, after local officials and a bunch of suits from Washington showed up in the little town of Standish, Mich., to case the local prison as a possible destination for Gitmo detainees, concerned citizens organized their own town-hall meeting. The local residents didn’t like what they learned at that meeting and they are pushing back, letting their state and local representatives know what they think. They are organizing. They know there is strength in numbers. They are putting pressure on the politicians in Washington. These are terrific people who have a stake in the process, taking control, instead of sitting back and grumbling.
LOPEZ: What will Keep America Safe do about it?
BURLINGAME: Educate. Inform. We want to arm people with the facts that get glossed over in five-minute cable-TV segments or ignored outright in the establishment media. We want to bring thoughtful analysis. Help the policymakers find the right course and get in the way of those who have let politics trump policy. We want to give ordinary Americans a voice, help them communicate with their elected officials, help them influence legislation and executive decisions. Shake things up.