Burlingame Rejoins Fray With a Campaign on Iran

Today, in the New York Sun:

Two years ago, Debra Burlingame rose to national prominence as the leader of the charge to quash the International Freedom Center at ground zero.

Her quest proved successful when Governor Pataki pulled the plug on the center, after she argued that its plan to tell the story of global freedom was morphing into an anti-American history lesson that was excluding the tragedy that took place at the site everyone would be coming to see.

As the sixth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approaches, Ms. Burlingame, whose brother was killed when the hijacked plane he was piloting crashed into the Pentagon, has a new cause.

The 53-year-old former television producer and lawyer has aligned herself with a group called Divest Terror, which is attempting to convince American pension funds and investors to pull their money from companies that do business with countries that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran.

“It is something that can put the squeeze on terror-sponsoring countries without shedding a drop of blood or firing a bullet,” she said yesterday during an interview at The New York Sun’s offices. “It is marshaling the economic power of this country against our enemies and people who want to wreak havoc in the Middle East and other parts of the world.”

Ms. Burlingame, a board member of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation (a group that is not involved in her new issue), is a bit of a political enigma. She supported Vice President Gore’s presidential run in 2000, but spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention and has become a hawk on national security. Yesterday, she called herself a “liberal Democrat,” even though she has sided with Republicans on a number of key issues.

“I’m still a registered Democrat and to be honest with you I kind of leave it that way because it really twists with reporters’ minds,” she said. “They assume that I’m a hard-core Republican conservative and I’m not ready to walk over the hot coals to do that. In way it’s almost irrelevant to me.”

She says the issue of divesting from Iran is not a political one. When asked about the argument that keeping American investment in Iran and other places could generate good will toward Western society, she said: “I think they swiggle Coca-Cola even if they are cursing the infidel. They love our culture and they are consumers of it, but they hate this country.”

The divestment campaign has gained national momentum in recent months, with Missouri taking its investment trust “terror free” and at least 10 states, including New York, considering it. The city’s comptroller, William Thompson, has successfully pressured several companies the city pension fund is invested in, including Halliburton, to stop doing business in Iran.

A bill has passed in the New York Senate that allows the state’s $140.5 billion pension fund to divest from companies that do business with nations the State Department classifies as sponsors of terrorism.

According to a report released by state Senator Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester, the pension fund has $12 billion invested in 235 companies that do business with nations that sponsor terrorism, including Coca-Cola and Chevron Corp. The bill has not yet passed the Assembly, and Governor Spitzer has not taken a public position on it.

Ms. Burlingame, who wants to meet with Mr. Spitzer on the matter, said she “basically went to school” on the issue after being contact by Divest Terror. Her evolution to this cause from being the voice of the IFC opposition has been “organic,” she said. When she tells firefighters, police officers, and teachers that their pension funds are invested in companies with financial interest in these countries, they are “shocked and outraged,” she said.

The director of Divest Terror, Christopher Holton, who is also the vice president of marketing at the Center for Security Policy, a conservative think tank, made his case bluntly.

“It wouldn’t have been acceptable to invest in companies that were doing business with Nazi Germany in 1943, and it is not acceptable today, in our opinion, to invest in companies that do business with Iran,” Mr. Holton, who also was present at the interview yesterday, said.


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