Sister of 9/11 victim presses Obama on ending investigation into CIA interrogators

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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It’s a rare day when President Barack Obama’s escort of flacks, spinners and deputies let their guard down. At Thursday’s 9/11 commemoration in New York, Debra Burlingame used one of those fleeting opportunities to directly ask the president to halt a two-year federal inquisition of the CIA interrogators who helped reveal Osama bin Laden’s fatal hiding-place.

“He said it defiantly. ‘No, I will not,’ and turned and walked away,” she said.

Burlingame’s coup is stoking Republicans’ calls for Obama to halt the investigation. On Sunday, former Vice President Dick Cheney called the investigation an “outrage.” House Republicans are also incensed by the investigation, and GOP activists see an issue they believe will show voters how the administration is too accommodating towards the nation’s enemies.

Burlingame is one of the many family members who were invited to meet the president during his televised tour of downtown New York. She was invited because the five jihadis on Flight 77 murdered her pilot-brother and then steered the aircraft and its passengers into the Pentagon, killing 59 passengers and crew, and 125 soldiers and civil-servants. That trauma made her into a citizen-activist. Since then, she’s used the Internet, her expanding number of supporters and her organization — 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America — to investigate jihadi-related security lapses and to promote better security policies. She’s pushed hard against policies championed by George W. Bush and Obama, especially Obama’s investigation of the CIA interrogators.

The New York meeting was advertised by an administration official as the president’s effort to bring “ closure” to the relatives of the dead. It was “almost like a cocktail party where people were standing in small clusters, and the president came over. He was getting hugged [by invitees], and people are thanking him, and holding hands,” Burlingame told The Daily Caller.

“I must say he’s very compelling, he comes across as very charismatic, as a real guy, ordinary in his demeanor. There’s nothing formal about the way he approaches people, and…he’s got this charming manner, this wonderful manner, and he looks you in the eye and seems sincere,” she said.

“I dreaded going to this thing…but it was a tactical opportunity that he could not prevent,” she said. “This was an opportunity to do right by the [CIA] case officers, and also [to help] the future of intelligence community and our ability to get intelligence,” she said.

Some months before September 2009, Obama’s Department of Justice reopened a closed investigation into the legality of tough interrogation techniques used by several CIA officers during the Bush administration. The techniques included ‘water-boarding,’ in which prisoners are forced to undergo an ordeal of simulated drowning.

Water-boarding was used on only a few prisoners, and it successfully broke the morale of leading jihadis, including KSM, or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the primary organizer of the 9/11 atrocity. Once broken, those jihadis willingly spilled numerous secrets, including the existence and nickname of bin Laden’s personal courier. That nickname was a critical step in a long journey through Iraq and Kuwait’s phone network to the prosperous town of Abbottabad, Pakistan where bin Laden was living in a compound.

The interrogation technique was as controversial as it was effective.

The Democrat-affiliated legal-sector had been relegated to a minor role in the national war against the jihadis once the Bush administration revived the use of military-directed courts, and established the Guantanamo camp to handle the prisoners. The lobby, led by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, pushed back by recruiting hundreds of high-status lawyers to help persuade judges to transfer the jihadis’ trials to civilian courts, and also by focusing the media’s attention on the use of tough-interrogation methods, especially water-boarding.

The resulting one-two punch of legal and media opposition made water-boarding anathema to Democratic politicians, and Obama forcefully condemned it numerous times during his race to the White House. Some conservatives and libertarians also opposed the technique, but their views have little impact on Obama’s preferences.

Once in power, Obama promptly forbade further use of tough interrogation techniques. Simultaneously, Obama placed the Department of Justice under his political ally Eric Holder, who quickly decided to begin an investigation of  water-boarding’s legality. In practice, the investigation meant Holder’s deputies began investigating the CIA officials who had actually performed the water-boarding on the jihadis.

The investigation is still underway, forcing the interrogators to hire lawyers, intimidating other government interrogators, and crippling U.S. intelligence-gathering programs.

In September 2009, Holder admitted he launched the investigation without reading the results of an earlier legal investigation completed during the Bush administration. That investigation was performed by the department’s non-political officials, and it concluded that water-boarding was not illegal.

Burlingame used her meeting with Obama to interrogate him about Holder’s investigation. “I put this whole issue to him,” and then asked Obama to tell Holder to end the investigation, Burlingame said. Obama immediately refused, saying “No, I will not,” she said.

If he had been expecting the question, “he could have come up with talking points,” she said. “This was set up as a intimate meeting in which he was to be a regular guy who cares about families,” and that’s why he wasn’t ready to deal with a well-informed skeptic, she said.

Also, the event was for the close relatives of people killed by the 9/11 jihadis, which meant she had moral authority.

Her expert questions revealed that she knew her subject. “He had to know that I had knowledge about this that couldn’t be finessed away,” she said.

This combination of surprise, moral authority and expertise momentarily stripped away Obama’s personable mask, she said. “He reverted to his true self, a peremptory arrogance.”

“He said ‘No, I won’t, and then he literally turned around on his heels, 180 degrees, and left me standing,” she said.

“This wasn’t me trying to get a gotcha moment,” she said. “He said he wanted to give me closure. Well, guess what, Mr. President, my closure comes when you have installed an effective policy that keep the intelligence coming,” she said.

“That’s my closure, that’s my peace.”