Victims' Families United in Tragedy, Divided in Views
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
NEW YORK -- When word came this week that the Obama administration is considering transferring some Guantanamo Bay detainees to facilities in the Midwestern United States, or possibly holding federal trials in New York, Virginia and the District, Doug Connors, who lost his older brother, Kevin, in the collapse of the World Trade Center's South Tower, was irate. "They're terrorists, for heaven's sake," he said. "They're in the Caribbean on a beach, getting three meals a day."
But Valerie Lucznikowska, who lost a nephew in that same attack, was thrilled. "I think that would be terrific," she said. "I think they should be tried here."
As the Obama administration wrestles with closing the military prison in Cuba, and revising other Bush administration policies on terrorism, it must navigate a range of viewpoints, from human rights advocates to overseas allies and members of Congress. One of the trickiest constituencies is the diverse community of family members of those killed in terrorist attacks, a group with often conflicting opinions.
They include relatives of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001; of the 17 sailors killed in October 2000 on the USS Cole; of those killed in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and in the bombings in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002 and 2005.
The attacks have politicized thousands of family members, creating an influential, emotional and often amorphous lobbying group on questions from the treatment of suspected terrorists to the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. Their views run from staunchly conservative to solidly liberal.
Some have become outspoken critics of President Obama's plans to close the Guantanamo Bay facility, questioning the wisdom of bringing detainees to federal prisons in the United States. Others support closing the prison. Some are demanding that the administration open classified materials that they say would shed light on foreign funding sources for terrorism. Still others are pushing for tighter immigration controls and an end to visa-free entry to the United States.
"There is a diverse set of opinions about closing Guantanamo, about having the military tribunals versus having federal trials in the United States, about the death penalty versus life if convicted," said Adele Welty, whose son, Timothy, was a New York firefighter killed on Sept. 11. "If you would take any group in the population who were not family members, you would have an equally diverse set of opinions."
For administration officials, who are already facing complex legal and political questions about these issues, the prospect of angry relatives speaking out presents another challenge.
Last month, administration task forces looking at detention and interrogation policies held two days of meetings with family members, with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. attending the first day's session.
There were tense moments, two attendees said, as one relative pressed Holder about the whereabouts of and travel restrictions on a Guantanamo Bay detainee the Obama administration had sent to the United Kingdom. The woman, whose brother was aboard one of the hijacked airplanes used in the Sept. 11 attacks, expressed concern that the man could make his way onto U.S. shores.
"The task forces welcome this input," said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. "Capturing a wide variety of views on issues related to detention policy and Guantanamo Bay is incredibly important and will only help the task forces make more informed decisions and recommendations."
Obama met with family members at the White House in early February, 16 days after he took office. And officials from the Justice Department, the State Department and the White House have held several conference calls with relatives to update them on policies.