By Keith B. Richburg and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
But many family members complain that these consultations are superficial. The conference calls are arranged with little notice, they say, often with limited time for questions.
"It's more like perfunctory notification than an ongoing fruitful dialogue," said Kristin Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald Michael Breitweiser, died in the World Trade Center.
Breitweiser is one of the original "Jersey Girls" -- suburban widows who challenged the Bush administration to create the 9/11 Commission to investigate the attacks and then to put the panel's recommendations in place. After her repeated clashes with the last administration, Breitweiser said, she had high hopes when Obama was elected. But now, she said she has become disillusioned: Officials' failure to include the families in decisionmaking, she said, "translates to me like they really don't care."
Kirk S. Lippold, who was the commander of the USS Cole and is now a senior fellow with Military Families United, an advocacy group opposed to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, said he thinks the administration sees the families "as irrelevant to the problem of fighting terrorism and closing Guantanamo. I think they view them as a public relations issue to be dealt with."
But some family members see Guantanamo Bay as a stain on America's values and reputation, and say the Obama administration is not moving quickly enough to close the facility and resolve the fate of the detainees.
"We're not interested in revenge," said Lucznikowska, a member of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. "We're interested in justice. We want to see things done right."
Jim Riches, a retired deputy fire chief whose firefighter son died in the Sept. 11 attacks, was among those who met with Obama at the White House and who visited Guantanamo Bay this year. "The issue is that these guys get tried and be brought to justice," he said. "I think a lot of people are losing sight of that. . . . Let's get these guys convicted and just move on."
Another large group of Sept. 11 victims' relatives has been irate that Obama did not reverse a Bush administration position in a lawsuit it has pursued against members of Saudi Arabia's royal family, who it accuses of helping finance al-Qaeda. Two federal courts have blocked the suit from going forward, citing Saudi Arabia's sovereign immunity, and the Supreme Court last month let the lower court's ruling stand.
Both administrations have argued against the suit on the grounds of sovereign immunity and potential damage to foreign policy.
The family members were also hoping Obama would reverse the Bush administration's decision to leave classified 28 pages from a 2003 congressional probe into the 2001 attacks, saying those pages deal with foreign financing of terrorism and could help implicate the Saudis.
A White House official said a decision is pending. "The president said that the documents in question would be reviewed, and the review of those documents has yet to be completed," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it involved a pending legal case.
After siding with the Saudis in pushing to get the suit dismissed, State Department officials met with family members to assure them that the administration was taking new steps to go after terrorism financing.
But the meeting "was very frustrating," said Terry Strada, one of the relatives supporting the suit. Strada lost her husband, Thomas, in the World Trade Center. "They would not answer direct questions that we had."
Johnson reported from Washington.