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Debate Turns to Aid for More Terrorism Victims

Attacks: Congress weighs opening the 9/11 fund to Americans killed in earlier bombings. Administration balks.

June 06, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As federal law enforcement agencies brace for another terrorist attack, Washington is grappling with whether to compensate victims of previous ones.

Over the Bush administration's objections, the House recently passed a bill that would open the Sept. 11 victims' fund to U.S. citizens killed or injured in the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998--Osama bin Laden's first assault on what is legally U.S. soil.

The 11 families who lost loved ones in that incident see chilling similarities--Americans killed on U.S. territory by Al Qaeda terrorists, amid security warnings ignored by the U.S. government.

But now the Senate is talking about expanding the fund even further to include victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1993 World Trade Center attack, raising thorny ethical and financial questions about which victims and what kind of terrorism the federal government plans to compensate in the future.

If Congress broadens the reach of compensation to include victims of domestic terrorism, it could set a precedent that would apply whenever a serial killer shoots up a school or a mass murderer guns down patrons of a fast-food restaurant.

''This is a recipe for bad legislation,'' said Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center. ''Historically, we have not provided social welfare compensation to people who are victims of domestic crime. Does the federal taxpayer really want to soften all those losses, or was the sheer scale and drama of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon a special case?''

The White House has quietly tried to stop the bill, arguing for a comprehensive study of principles to guide future compensation. But no one believes President Bush will veto the bill should it reach his desk, given the emotional outpouring of support in the House, where the vote was 391 to 18.

''It is the sheer fairness of it for these 11 families,'' said Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chief deputy majority whip in the House and the bill's sponsor. ''Because the situation was exactly analogous to what happened on 9/11--Americans were killed on U.S. territory and Al Qaeda took credit--I thought this was a group we could add with the least debate about whether we are setting any new standards. But the truth is that all of this is new ground.''

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress passed a $15-billion bailout bill meant to keep the grounded airline industry afloat until passengers--and passenger confidence--returned. Part of the package was unprecedented compensation, estimated at $6 billion, for victims of the attack, provided they agreed not to sue the airlines.

Only 55 lawmakers voted against the bill. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), cited the very issues now churning Congress.

''No entitlements were enacted by Congress to compensate victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida and floods along the Mississippi River,'' he said during House debate. ''If this entitlement is approved, does Congress really want to say no to the victims of future tragedies?''

Edith Bartley hopes not. Having lost her father and her brother to Bin Laden's destruction in the embassy bombings in Africa four years ago, she almost single-handedly muscled Congress to consider compensation for the diplomats.

''Our families were the first victims of Osama bin Laden,'' said Bartley, who was in law school when she started the campaign and is now a Washington attorney. ''Our pleas had fallen on deaf ears. After Sept. 11, it made it harder for Congress to ignore us.''

For the embassy families, there is one more similarity to Sept. 11 that makes an appeal for equal treatment especially poignant. In an administrative claim seeking from $1.5 million to $2 million for each victim, they allege that the U.S. government knew--and ignored--warnings that might have prevented disaster.

According to the claim, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright repeatedly ignored warnings from the U.S. ambassador in Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, that the embassy was vulnerable to attack. The administration knew that an Al Qaeda cell was operating in Kenya, the claim alleges. Bushnell flew to Washington to beg for more security, according to the families, but Albright summarily ordered her back to her post, threatening that unless she stopped complaining, she might never get another posting.

''It's the ultimate indignity,'' said Stuart Newberger, a Washington lawyer who represents 10 of the 11 families who lost relatives to the bombs. (The other family elected not to seek compensation.) ''These are families of the foreign service. The government failed them at the time, and then they deliberately forgot them.''

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