Minn. heroes' stories diverge on fighting terrorism, a decade after 9/11

Rowley and Burnett
Two people with Minnesota ties -- Coleen Rowley, left, a whistleblower at the FBI; and Tom Burnett Jr., a passenger aboard Flight 93 -- are both considered heroes of 9/11. Rowley and Burnett's family have taken different paths in the wake of the terrorist attacks.
Getty Images/Burnett family

Ten years ago, two people with Minnesota ties tried to thwart the Sept. 11 terrorists.

One was an FBI whistleblower pushing the U.S. government to act on information about a suspected terrorist training at an Eagan flight school. The other was a businessman who led a passenger revolt that diverted United Flight 93 from its intended target — the U.S. Capitol or the White House.

A decade later, their stories point to sharply different views on how America should best respond to terrorism.

FBI agent Coleen Rowley and Flight 93 passenger Tom Burnett Jr. acted on their beliefs in a moment of crisis. In the decade since the attacks, Rowley and Burnett's family are still urging Americans to act — but they don't advocate the same path.


Tom Burnett's final minutes were spent fighting the hijackers. His parents, Beverly and Tom Burnett Sr., formerly of Bloomington, Minn., were among the Flight 93 family members who pushed for access to the black box recording. Their response to hearing their son's last words is emotional and angry.

"His message was, 'We're going to do something,' and he was determined to do it," Beverly Burnett said. "That's the kind of young man he was."

Tom Burnett Sr. said what's remarkable is that their son and other passengers fought against the hijackers without weapons.

Tom Burnett Sr.
Tom Burnett Sr. tears up as he talks about his son Tom Burnett Jr. on August 31, 2011, at his home in Northfield, Minn. Tom Burnett Jr. was part of the passenger revolt on the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., on September 11, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Those bastard Islamists had knives, had box cutters, and he got injured there taking over that plane — trying to," Burnett said. "And he mentioned it. We heard him. He says, 'I'm injured,' and I imagine he got cut."

Tom Burnett Jr. was able to make four phone calls to his wife Deena in California on that day. He asked her to alert authorities to the hijacking, and gathered information from her about the other hijacked planes that had already hit their targets.

Burnett's last words to his wife were "Don't worry; we're going to do something." He was one of 37 passengers and seven crew members who died when the plane crashed near Shanksville, Penn.

For Burnett's parents, losing their only son brought profound private grief. They talk longingly of their popular middle child who made sure his dad got to do the three trips on his bucket list, and remembered to call while leading a busy career at a medical device company and raising three young daughters.

They also had to accept that their son's death in the tragedy had a public dimension.

"When it happened, I really wanted to pull the curtains," Beverly Burnett said. "For a long time I didn't want to share my grief with anyone. I was forced to do it because people ... wanted to show their love and grief for Tom. They would come up and hug me, and I'm kind of a private person. I've changed in the last 10 years; I've had to."

Beverly and Tom Burnett Sr.
Beverly and Tom Burnett Sr. are the parents of Tom Burnett Jr., who was part of the passenger revolt on the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pa., on September 11, 2011. They spoke about their son at their Northfield, Minn., home on August 31, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

The Burnetts hope to use their son's memory to inspire Americans to stay vigilant to the threat of terrorism. Now retired and living in Northfield, Minn., they gave up thoughts of golfing and found themselves meeting with a lawyer.

When Tom Burnett Sr. first proposed striking a blow to the terrorists, the lawyer advised him to calm down.

"I said, 'I don't want to. I got to get this done.' And he was talking about compensation," Burnett said. "I said, 'I don't want any compensation from airlines or anyone else. I want to get those people and we want to break them. We want to get at their underbelly and stop this flow of money, particularly out of Middle East."

The Burnetts filed a lawsuit in 2002 on behalf of a group of survivors and family members, known as 9/11 Families United to Bankrupt Terrorism. The suit, which now represents some 6,500 plaintiffs, has had some setbacks, but is still moving through federal court in New York.

Tom Burnett also has spoken out against the National Park Service's memorial to Flight 93 in Shanksville, saying the "circle of peace" design looks more like the Islamic symbol of a crescent. They'll be running ads in newspapers to coincide with the anniversary, calling the planned memorial a "blatant declaration of Islamic victory."

If the Burnetts are vowing to fight on, Coleen Rowley sees a different path to confronting terrorism.


When the terrorists struck, Rowley was an FBI agent in Minneapolis. Agents there had locked horns with officials at FBI headquarters about the local office's concerns over Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national who had aroused suspicion at an Eagan flight school the month before. Moussaoui was an inexperienced pilot who paid in cash, and seemed more interested in learning to fly a jet than in learning how to land one.

Coleen Rowley testifies
Former Minneapolis-based FBI Agent Coleen Rowley testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2002 in Washington, D.C., during a hearing on the FBI response to information about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Rowley said that the FBI is an "ever-growing bureaucracy" that stifles individual initiative.

The FBI's mishandling of information that could potentially have revealed the plot ahead of time haunted Rowley. In 2002, she wrote an internal memo to FBI director Robert Mueller urging a thorough review of intelligence mistakes. Her memo was leaked, and prompted the Justice Department's Inspector General to investigate the agency's handling of intelligence information on the attacks.

Rowley testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2002 regarding her concerns. She was even named one of Time magazine's "Persons of the Year" for 2002, along with two other whistleblowers — Sherron Watkins of Enron and Cynthia Cooper of WorldCom.

Despite her criticism of the FBI, Rowley hung on to her job after four U.S. senators wrote letters on her behalf. Her next memo to Mueller led to the end of her 24-year career with the FBI.

After her first memo, Mueller had told Rowley that he had an open-door policy and to contact him if she saw other concerns. In early 2003, as the Bush administration weighed an invasion of Iraq, Rowley wrote Mueller to say that Iraq had no connection to al-Qaida. She asked why the intelligence community wasn't correcting the misimpression.

"I sent this in an email to Mueller," Rowley recalled. "No response. It's March 7, the news says the United States forces are on the border, ready to attack Iraq. I called up the New York Times at that point. And that literally was the end of my career."

FBI agents said they could no longer trust her, so Rowley stepped down from her position as legal counsel but remained with the agency. For a year and a half, she volunteered for the jobs nobody else wanted.

Coleen Rowley
Former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley continues to speak about what she considers the United States' misguided response to the events of September 11, 2001. She's shown here at her home in Apple Valley, Minn., on August 24, 2011.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"I went out on night surveillances," she said. "I even spent a Christmas vacation working ... for two days answering phones. We had one of these orange alerts where nobody wanted to spend Christmas vacation in the office, but I volunteered. So I did this kind of thing just so I could make it to retirement."

Rowley retired in 2004 at age 50, with what she calls a small pension. She'd been the breadwinner for her family of six.

Once outside the FBI, Rowley searched for ways she could effect change. She wanted to see the United States fight terrorism without undermining the rule of law.

Rowley wrote op-eds criticizing the Patriot Act, a law that granted the federal government greater access to individuals' information, often through secret proceedings. She derided the idea that "secret and unchecked government power equals greater security."

Rowley, who describes herself as a lifelong Republican before the terrorist attacks, ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2006. She challenged incumbent U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican, in Minnesota's 2nd District, and lost.

These days, Rowley is a full-time activist, speaking out against what she considers America's misguided response to the attacks. She was on the sidewalk last week when President Obama addressed the American Legion in Minneapolis.

She points to the State Department's most recent Country Report, which shows the number of terrorist attacks around the world has gone up over the past decade.

Coleen Rowley
On August 24, 2011, at her home in Apple Valley, Minn., Coleen Rowley holds up a framed copy of the Chinese version of the Time magazine on which she appeared when she was named one of three persons of the year in 2002.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"You'd think the media would be all over this, suggesting maybe the response to 9/11 was not a good response and maybe has made things worse," she said.

One example Rowley cites is how federal officials let known suspects slip through their grasp before the attacks. The government's solution — to vastly increase the amount of data gathered in intelligence databases — didn't persuade her that the intelligence was being handled any better than it was under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"Rumsfeld's response was, 'Well, there was so much intelligence it was like a fire hose, and you can't get a sip from a firehose,'" she said. "If it was a fire hose before 9/11, it's Niagara Falls now."

Rowley said she doesn't have much faith in the two-party system, or the media's ability to uncover the truth of what the United States needs to reckon with in its fight against terrorism. But she believes the wars and massive spending on homeland security haven't made the nation safer.

"We want to believe," she said. "Certainly fear ... makes us want to believe that this can't have been all wrong."

Rowley is helping to plan a rally on Oct. 15 in Minneapolis to protest the 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks this weekend, the Burnetts will be speaking at an event in Bloomington to honor their son and other 9/11 heroes.

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