Second only to the sub rosa network of Tea Party fronts funded by Libertarian billionaires Charles and David Koch, the infamously tone deaf plans for an Islamic community center just blocks away from 9/11's Ground Zero came to define the midterm elections of 2010. This is the weird story of who funded that mess.
On the surface, the whole sad episode had the look simply of just a ditzy misunderstanding—the accidental sharp abutment of "limousine liberal" multiculturalism against the still raw national mood.
But, a quick glance at the Form 990s for the organizations involved in what came to be known as (eye roll) "the Ground Zero Mosque" shows that the entirety of its operating budget—more really—came from a fixture on the U.S. military and diplomatic scenes, R. Leslie Deak: a man who at that time was working as a business consultant for the private defense contractor Patriot Defense Group, LLC, alongside a former commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, General Doug Brown, and James Pavitt, a former director of operations for the CIA. On a current Google+ profile—that you'd better believe I saved an HTML file of—Les Deak boasts of having once had a "DoD Secret Security Clearance."
Deak's father, Nicholas Deak, had career-long U.S. intelligence community ties also. Called "the James Bond of the world of money" by waiting room sedative Time magazine, Nicholas Deak followed his WWII-era role in the CIA's precursor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), running a daring, white-shoe currency and precious metals firm on Wall Street, Deak-Perera, used by the CIA to monitor global capital flows and to smuggle covert ops funding into, buh, countries of great national security interest to the United States. Nick Deak and his company hit their first wave of fatally negative publicity during the Church committee hearings of the mid-1970s, when it was discovered that Deak-Perera had been instrumental in smuggling money into Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo to finance the CIA's government coups there. By the mid-1980s, he was dead, murdered under very bizarre circumstances, and Deak-Perera was mired in a drug-related money laundering scandal that ultimately forced the firm into bankruptcy.
R. Leslie Deak worked for his dad at that time, from 1973 to 1985. He was President and CEO of Deak-Perera when he left the company.
Today, among other gigs, Les Deak is on the Board of Advisors of the Center for a New American Security, by far one of the most influential foreign policy think tanks in the country right now, with multiple employees holding down key positions in the Obama administration. One of my favorite Leslie Deak stories involves him threatening to sue a man on Facebook for posting a protest photo taken outside the center's D.C.-area headquarters.
Mark Ames, currently of Pando Daily, formerly the senior editor of NSFW Corp. (and a co-founder along with future Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi of that Moscow-based expat rag The eXile), covered the Deak's Family Spooktacular quite ably for both the New York Observer and Salon years ago; He's still baffled by them.
"Weirdest fucking story I've ever worked on," Ames said via email, "that includes anything in weird-as-hell Russia."
The non-paranoid, un-fun explanation for how R. Leslie Deak came to be involved in the Great 9/11 Terror Mosque at Ground Zero would probably stem from the vast amount of business he does in Egypt, where he reportedly spends six months out of every year. He also converted to Islam when he married his current wife, Moshira Soliman. In that context, it makes some kind of sense that, as one of two people running the Deak Family Foundation, he gave $98,000 to the non-profit spearheading the mosque project, the Cordoba Initiative, from 2006-2008: a figure higher than Cordoba's operating budget or reported earnings in those years.
A Sufi Imam named Feisal Abdul Rauf started the Cordoba Initiative, along with his (third) wife Daisy Khan. They simultaneously ran a related nonprofit, the American Society for Muslim Advancement, to which the Deak Family Foundation also gave quite generously:
In addition to being an FBI consultant and a spokesperson for George W. Bush's longtime confidante Karen Hughes, Rauf was also incredibly intimate with the Deaks during the long stretch before the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. Thanks to some recent and embarrassing lawsuits between them all, alleging and counter-alleging a baroque series of financial fuckings over and real estate scams, we now know that Rauf was actually living with the Deaks for a time in 2010.
Over the course of five years, Cordoba's principal and president Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf developed a close friendship with Deak and Soliman, who are residents of the District of Columbia. Deak and Soliman attempted to raise funds for Cordoba, acted as advisors to Cordoba and Rauf, and hosted Rauf in their home for over three months in 2010.
If you are the kind of houseguest who feels inordinately neurotic about outstaying your welcome, you might be inclined to suspect that this situation gave R. Leslie Deak some kind of leverage during this period. An alternate scenario, a la the 1995 family comedy Houseguest starring Sinbad and Phil Hartman, would suggest that this period was one long graft by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf punctuated by wacky hijinks that peaked with the national fiasco at Ground Zero.
Either way, during that same period in 2010, Rauf and Khan began floating the idea of building a cultural center in lower Manhattan that would promote cross-cultural exchange and a mutual understanding between Muslims and people of all faiths. The Burlington Coat Factory at 45-47 Park Place in the financial district had been more-or-less abandoned since September 11th, 2001, when parts of the landing-gear assembly and fuselage of United Airlines Flight 175 had crashed through its roof and top two floors. But, recognizing that the abandoned factory could be more than great coats, Rauf began conducting services there in the second half of 2009 and floating the idea of this Islamic community center to local political and religious leaders who, as the New York Times reported, were largely receptive.
But over the next nine months, a great shrieking chorus of American patriots let it be known that they passionately disagreed. The story burbled and sputtered around conservative blogs for months, until—as a fascinating analysis and graph by the the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard makes clear—an admittedly irresistibly stupid tweet by Sarah Palin propelled the controversy into the mainstream (during the slow late-summer "Cucumber Season" of the news cycle):
"I will personally match the first $10,000 raised," baseball cap-owner Michael Moore was telling his readers by that September, in a blog post that quoted John Adams, Deepak Chopra, and Bertolt Brecht, in support of Rauf's project.
It was—without question—the most partisan non-PETA-related fight over a Burlington Coat Factory in world history.
But: Was it a manufactured controversy? Designed to generate jingoistic outrage, just in time to influence key midterm elections, swinging congress away from the Democrats and (potentially) frustrating efforts by the young, new Obama administration to draw down the War on Terror? Or was it simply a goofball mistake, made by some weird yahoos with a lot of money to throw at their bad ideas?
These are still unanswered questions four years later, but one thing that is known definitely, is that the planned Islamic cultural center at 45-47 Park Place was not a secret training center for al-Qaeda terrorists or an endzone dance to celebrate the 9/11 terror attacks.
It was funded by one of the most well-connected men working just slightly outside of the U.S. government. It was an inside job.