In November of 2002, my two brothers and I traveled to FBI offices in Alexandria, Virginia and met with one of the lead federal prosecutors who was working on the criminal investigation of the 9/11 attacks. We were there to watch a video animation of American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that was hijacked by five Al Qaeda terrorists and flown into the Pentagon.
We were desperate to find out anything we could about the flight because our brother, Charles F. “Chic” Burlingame, III, was its captain, the pilot in command that fateful morning.
The video we were about to see — put together from the plane’s flight data recorder, or “black box,” and FAA radar tracking — would show us the plane’s every movement, from the time it pushed back from the gate at Dulles Airport to the moment just before it crashed into the Pentagon at 530 mph, one hour and 27 minutes later.
We sat in silence for the entire duration of the video. The animation noted when radio contact ceased and when the plane’s unique radar signature, its transponder, was turned off. We watched, barely breathing, as the Boeing 757 changed course. Almost immediately after it completed its 180 degree turn, the plane began to pitch and roll violently.
We knew this was when Chic was fighting for his life. It lasted more than six agonizing minutes. And then it stopped.
Every 9/11 family member has visions of their loved one’s last moments. I don’t know who is more fortunate, those who know the precise details of their relative’s death or those who don’t — those who can only imagine it from the countless horrific images captured in real time and published over and over in the media for the last 13 years.
Every family member can speak to this, but here are the words of one FDNY firefighter about the 20,000 body parts they found, sometimes digging on their hands and knees: “Imagine that the twin towers were two giant blenders that were suddenly turned on. The people who didn’t make it out were literally torn to pieces and flung from river to river, on the streets and rooftops of Lower Manhattan.”
This is the context for the families of the victims as we watched Sen. Dianne Feinstein declare from the well of the U.S. Senate last month that the harsh interrogation of the men who plotted and carried out our loved ones’ savage murders, and who planned a second wave of terror, was “a stain on our values and our history.”
These are the images we thought of as we were told that the government had committed war crimes when it sanctioned the CIA enhanced interrogation program to acquire intelligence from the people who meant to terrorize and incapacitate the nation further.
We recalled receiving the multiple next-of-kin notifications for human remains over a period of months or years when we were told that the detainees were tortured.
Tortured? What does that actually mean?
In the Washington bubble, the debate on the so-called torture report has come and gone with disturbingly familiar speed. It was the big story for one week, and then seems forgotten.
Not for those who live daily, hourly, moment-by-moment with the emotional scars of having lost loved ones on 9/11.
The Senate Intelligence Committee members who prepared this report — which essentially labels as criminals those who scrambled to defend us in the immediate wake of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil in our history — have done the unimaginable. They have turned our loved ones’ murderers into victims.
And they have done so on the international stage at the worst possible time, when ISIS is killing, raping and beheading innocent people at a rapacious rate while at the same time recruiting here in the West for more members.
In 2009, I was among those 9/11 family members who opposed President Obama’s plan to release the details of the Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program (RDI) the CIA created and carried out with presidential approval. The lengthy legal memos Obama published were written at the behest of John Rizzo, then acting chief counsel for the CIA.
He was looking for legal guidance so that the program would stay inside the legal limits of the federal statute prohibiting torture. He was also looking to protect his people from Monday-morning quarterbacking, from after-the-fact charges — from the very people who had been briefed about the RDI program and encouraged it to go forward — that they had violated the maddeningly vague anti-torture statute.
Sept. 11 family members didn’t want these methods revealed because we didn’t want our enemies to have our playbook and thus the means to train against it. We remembered former CIA Director George Tenet’s testimony before the 9/11 Commission.
He said that infiltrating terrorist groups was exceedingly difficult and that cultivating covert assets who could provide fresh intelligence about them could take five years or longer. We didn’t have five years. The country was at war, and, indeed, will always be at war as long as Islamic jihadists continue to target and kill Americans in coordinated attacks.
Once the legal memos were published, we learned that enhanced interrogation methods were drawn from the SERE program; Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Our brother called it “POW school.” As a Navy fighter pilot, he was one of the tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel put through SERE since the end of the Vietnam War.
The purpose was to teach pilots, special-force operators and intelligence personnel — those most likely to be captured behind enemy lines — how to mentally prepare for the ordeal. As Chic explained it, the military believed that the command to provide only “name, rank and serial number” was insufficient.
The aim was to expose SERE participants to terrifying conditions to increase their ability to cope in captivity, to give them the means to survive.
Chic was among the tens of thousands of pilots who had attended SERE and had been waterboarded. He didn’t call it that. He called it “the water treatment,” and would only say that it was “very effective.” SERE was a brutal experience, approved by Congress, which members of our own military submitted to in preparation to serve their country. But applied to Al Qaeda terrorists, Sen. Feinstein now says it amounts to “torture.”
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey observed that more journalists have been waterboarded in order to sample and write about the procedure than the three terrorists who were waterboarded in the RDI program. In fact, five of the eight pilots who were murdered in their cockpits on 9/11 were ex-military pilots. All of them went through the SERE program. That means that more 9/11 victims were waterboarded than the Al Qaeda terrorists who killed them.
Feinstein knows that after 9/11, the public was willing to tolerate these methods to prevent another devastating mass-casualty attack. Rather than take the more difficult position that these methods are morally reprehensible regardless of their effectiveness, the Committee elected to turn Americans against the agency trying to protect us.
For five years, Sen. Feinstein has led this effort to rewrite history and has produced a fraudulent document that says enhanced interrogation techniques “didn’t work.”
This claim is the linchpin the Committee relied on and, I believe, the chief reason the report was created without interviewing a single individual actually involved in the program, or any of the former CIA directors who oversaw its administration and know otherwise.
But the public doesn’t have to take the word of three former CIA directors regarding the program’s effectiveness. They need only consult the Obama Administration’s own Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder.
In 2009, Mr. Holder brought senior Al Qaeda member Ahmed Ghailani to New York City for trial in federal court. Ghailani, a Bin Laden body guard and bomb expert, was part of the 1998 conspiracy to bomb the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, maiming and injuring over 4,000.
Ghailani fled to Pakistan after the attack and continued to act as a senior member of Al Qaeda until he was captured in 2004. After he was brought to New York for trial in the embassy bombings case, presiding federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan asked the attorneys on both sides to brief the issue of Ghailani’s Fifth Amendment right to a speedy trial. Ghailani had spent more than four years at a CIA “black site” undergoing interrogation.
The Holder Justice Department argued that Ghailani’s rights had not been violated and that his placement in the RDI program was reasonable and justified. The brief described the RDI program as an “essential” program that “saved lives.” And lest the Court think these claims were hypothetical, the brief listed page after page of classified intelligence supporting that claim.
Indeed, we now know that Ghailani’s interrogations provided information in the matrix of intelligence leading to the location of Osama Bin Laden.
Feinstein and her fellow Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have delivered to the world a corrupt, partisan report aimed at obscuring the fact that they condoned an aggressive response to 9/11 — and then condemned that same response once the “dirty work” was done.
In so condemning, they are endangering Americans by playing to a narrative written by anti-American ideologues in thrall of international human rights activists with no allegiance to nations.
By failing to distinguish between the human rights of truly aggrieved and oppressed people and terrorists who have pledged — repeatedly and remorselessly — to perpetrate heinous war crimes against innocent men, women and children, these politicians have turned the concept of “shared humanity” upside down.
We will get past this, because good men and women will continue to stand up when their country needs them. They always do. Even at the risk of betrayal.
Burlingame is cofounder of 9/11 Families for a Safe & Strong America and a member of the board of directors of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.