9/11 Victims' Families Sue Saudis

9/11 Victims' Families Sue Saudis

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 15 — Some 600 family members of Sept. 11 victims filed a trillion-dollar lawsuit Thursday against the Sudanese government and Saudi officials, banks and charities, charging they financed Osama bin Laden's network and the attacks on America.

The 15-count federal lawsuit, modeled after action filed against Libya in the Pan Am Flight 103 disaster, seeks to cripple banks, charities and some members of the Saudi royal family as a deterrent to terrorist financing schemes.

But the suit also is therapeutic for relatives of the victims, who acknowledge they face long odds of collecting anything.

"It's not the money. We want to do something to get at these people," said Irene Spina, whose daughter, Lisa L. Trerotola, 38, perished in the World Trade Center. "There's nothing else we can do."

"This is the right thing to do," said Matt Sellito, father of Matthew Carmen Sellito, 23, who also died in the World Trade Center. "If the odds are stacked against us, we will beat them."

The 258-page complaint, filed electronically Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, seeks more than $1 trillion and charges the defendants with racketeering, wrongful death, negligence and conspiracy.

Lead attorney Ron Motley said the money would likely come largely from assets held by the defendants in the United States. He said the plaintiffs were after more institutions than those whose assets already have been frozen by the U.S. and other governments.

The complaint also ignores the Bush administration's delicate diplomatic balancing act with Saudi Arabia by bluntly blaming the kingdom's officials and institutions for the attacks.

"That kingdom sponsors terrorism," Motley told reporters at a news conference. "This is an insidious group of people."

The complaint names more than seven dozen defendants, including the government of Sudan, seven banks, eight Islamic foundations and three Saudi princes.

Those listed include Princes Mohammed al-Faisal and former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Defense Minister Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, Khalid bin Salim bin Mahfouz of the National Commercial Bank, and the Faisal Islamic Bank.

Officials from the Saudi Embassy did not immediately return a call for comment.

President Bush's administration has been careful not to blame the Saudi government for the attacks in its drive build a coalition for its war against terrorism.

Prince Saud said last week that the 70-year-old U.S.-Saudi alliance was as solid now as before the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

He said bin Laden, who was stripped of Saudi citizenship and is accused of directing the al-Qaida attacks, had intended to drive a wedge between the two countries when he chose 15 Saudi citizens to be among the 19 hijackers.

Several plaintiffs, fighting tears, said they would dedicate the rest of their lives to punishing those who financed the attacks.

"We will succeed because we have the facts and the law on our side," said Thomas E. Burnett Sr., whose son, Thomas E. Burnett Jr., led a passenger revolt against the hijackers of United Airlines Flight 93 and died when it plummeted to the ground.

"We have justice and morality on our side," he added.

In May, lawyers announced that a group of Libyans had negotiated a deal that would give $10 million each to the families of those killed when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. But Libya insisted the group did not have authorization from the government to negotiate.

— The Associated Press

Judge Lets Government Keep 9/11 Detainees Secret

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 15 — A federal judge ruled today that the Bush administration does not have to immediately reveal the names of those detained in the investigation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler issued a stay of her earlier order to give government lawyers more time to appeal. Kessler said the stay will remain in effect until a federal appeals court has ruled in the matter. That could take months. On Aug. 2, Kessler gave the Justice Department 15 days to release the names, ruling that federal attorneys had not proven the need for a blanket policy of secrecy for more than 1,200 people picked up since the attacks. The government informed the court of its intention to appeal last week, arguing in documents that Kessler had missed the point about keeping the names secret. Kessler rejected the government's contention that the terrorist group al Qaeda would be tipped to how much progress investigators had made if the detainees' names were released. She said al Qaeda already would be aware its operatives in the United States were missing. In granting the stay today, she offered no estimation of the government's chance of success in appealing her ruling. Most of the people swept up by federal, state and local authorities following the September attacks already have been deported. Apart from periodic updates on the number still held, the Justice Department has tried to keep information about the arrests under wraps. The American Civil Liberties Union, Center for National Security Studies and others sued the government seeking that the names be disclosed. Kessler largely limited her original ruling to the government's obligations under the federal Freedom of Information Act. In a partial victory for the Justice Department, she rejected the notion that the civil liberties groups have a constitutional free-speech right to some information about the detainees. Kessler also agreed with the government that it may keep other details secret, ruling there are valid security reasons for not revealing the dates and location of arrests and detentions. Still, the Justice Department said that if Kessler's initial ruling stands, the investigation of the terrorist attacks would be harmed. The ruling "impedes one of the most important federal law enforcement investigations in history, harms our efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the heinous attacks of Sept. 11, and increases the risk of future terrorist threats to our nation," Robert McCallum, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said after Kessler ordered the release of the names. Kessler's order gave two exceptions for disclosing names: if the detainee is determined to be a material witness to a terror investigation and if the person being held does not want to be identified. In law, material witness means a person was close enough to a crime to have information or details that could be used by prosecutors to convict a suspect. The government has said that between Sept. 11 and June 24, 752 people were arrested or detained in immigration charges. The others were arrested on various other charges. In late June, the Justice Department reported at least 147 people still were being held, including 74 on charges involving immigration infractions. Prosecutors have not said how many people are being held as material witnesses.

— The Associated Press

Firefighters Vote to Boycott Bush Tribute

L A S V E G A S, Aug. 15 —

The International Association of Fire Fighters voted unanimously Wednesday to boycott a national tribute to firefighters who died on Sept. 11, in an angry response to President Bush's rejection of a bill that included $340 million to fund fire departments.

Bush is expected to speak at the Oct. 6 ceremony in Washington, where the National Fallen Fire Fighters Foundation is hosting its annual tribute to those who died in the line of duty during the prior year.

The ceremony will honor 343 firefighters who died responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, as well as about 100 others who also died in the year.

The IAFF, the umbrella organization for the nation's professional firefighter unions, is enraged by the president's rejection of a $5.1 billion appropriations bill that included $150 million for equipment and training grants requested by some of the nation's 18,000 fire departments.

It also included $100 million to improve the communications systems for firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel as well as $90 million for long-term health monitoring of emergency workers at the Ground Zero site where New York's World Trade Center towers once stood.

Firefighters and survivors will be urged to skip the Oct. 6 event in protest, said R. Michael Mohler of the Virginia Professional Fire Fighters Local 774.

Mohler made the boycott motion before about 2,000 union leaders convening in Las Vegas for the IAFF's first national conference since Sept. 11.

"The president has merely been using firefighters and their families for one big photo opportunity," Mohler said. "We will work actively to not grant him another photo op with us."

Bush said Tuesday the bill was bloated by less important projects and a White House spokeswoman said Bush remained committed to firefighters and other emergency groups.

"The president is committed to our nation's first responders," said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan, traveling with Bush in Des Moines, Iowa.

The firefighters' boycott vote followed anti-Bush speeches by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger that accused the president of neglecting the heroes of Sept. 11.

Schaitberger ridiculed as insincere Bush's videotaped remarks shown Monday at the conference, in which Bush expressed sympathy and admiration for the firefighters who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, and then stab us in the back by eliminating funding for our members to fight terrorism and stay safe," Schaitberger said. "President Bush, you are either with us or against us. You can't have it both ways."

Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, told the firefighters: "I strongly urge the president to reconsider. If he refuses to do so, however, I am prepared to do everything I can as majority leader to see that you get the resources you need to do your jobs safely and effectively."

— Reuters

Homeland Security Department Could Be Years Away

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 15 — After the rush in Congress to create a Homeland Security Department, it could be years before the gigantic new Cabinet agency is fully operational.

The General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimates it could take five to 10 years before the new department can "provide meaningful and sustainable results."

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic whip, said Wednesday the huge agency is a creature that would have been obsolete in the 1950s and it should be whittled down to something more efficient.

"If our goal is to protect the American people as soon as possible, an unwieldy department of this size and scope is not the way to go," said Pelosi, D-Calif.

Many experts and lawmakers say it's risky to embark on massive, long-term bureaucratic change at such an uncertain time.

"We're going to be spending all of our time thinking about reorganization. It's bound to make us less safe," said Ivo Daalder, a member of former President Clinton's National Security Council staff who is now at the Brookings Institution think tank.

The last government consolidation of this magnitude occurred in 1947, when President Truman took the first steps toward creating what became the Defense Department. Congress cemented those steps in 1949, then did some more tinkering in 1953 and 1958. Another reorganization occurred in 1986.

Likewise, the Homeland Security bill's probable passage this fall would mark only the infancy of the new Cabinet agency. While the bill sets an effective date of Jan. 1, 2003, the department would exist mainly on paper at that point.

The legislation will be the first item of business when the Senate returns from recess Sept. 3. It is expected to win approval despite opposition from some senior lawmakers, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. The Senate and House will then have to reach compromise on a final version.

The White House has created a transition office to oversee the change, headed by Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. Planning is under way to get the new department's leaders in place before it comes into existence and to figure out some temporary space requirements.

Ridge is also charged with coordinating the federal government's efforts to prevent terrorism in the United States. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the office can handle both tasks without diminishing either.

The list of challenges is almost endless, ranging from merging dozens of different technology and communications systems to designing new uniforms for the thousands of border personnel who would come under one bureaucratic roof but remain stationed all over the country.

Four agencies Bush wants included — the Customs Service, Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Transportation Security Agency — account for 85 percent of the new department's roughly 170,000 employees. They are located mostly along the coastlines and the thousands of miles of border with Canada and Mexico, and in 429 commercial airports.

Merging these personnel and their disparate missions, Johndroe said, "is going to be a long-term process because it needs to be done right. We're not talking decades. But it will take time, a couple of years."

A central task of the new agency is to analyze intelligence and act on it to protect against and prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. If the Senate version of the agency is created, it would set up a powerful new unit that needs a great deal of expertise to pore over huge amounts of data in dozens of languages.

"Getting that up and running is going to take years," Daalder said.

Then there's the question of whether — and if so, where — a new department headquarters should be built to house the more than 7,000 affected employees now scattered across the Washington area. The House-passed version of the legislation requires construction of a new headquarters building — another move measured in years, not months — preferably on government-owned land to save money.

Initial transition cost estimates of $3 billion over the next five years don't take into account a new headquarters. White House officials say it may not be necessary to locate all the workers in a single place, which would also save some taxpayer dollars.

These decisions bring up a host of other seemingly mundane issues that could affect the ability of the agency to do its job, such as the stresses involved in forcing workers to change locations and adapt to new power structures.

— The Associated Press

As 9/11 Approaches, Tourists Shy Away From N.Y.

N E W Y O R K, Aug. 15 —

Florida resident Sylvia Weiffenbach had no qualms about coming to New York last week for a holiday with her young daughter.

She felt secure getting on an airplane and comforted by the police presence around Manhattan, taking in The Lion King on Broadway as well as making a solemn visit to the site of the Sept. 11 attacks, known as "Ground Zero." But come next month when the city marks the painful first anniversary of the hijacked airliner crashes into the World Trade Center, Weiffenbach says she wouldn't dream of making the same trip.

"It's not that I'd be afraid — it's just too emotional," said the 42-year-old writer who lives in Palmetto, Fla. "I want to be in my home dealing with it."

New York's tourism industry, badly hurt after the twin tower attacks that killed more than 2,800 people, is bracing for a slowdown as travelers stay away while the city observes the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Tourism has picked up since a year ago, but hotels, restaurants and other attractions still are struggling with a decline in international visitors and lower spending overall.

The average hotel room rate in New York City is expected to fall to about $187 in 2002, down about 9 percent from last year as hotels cut prices to lure visitors, according to forecasts by NYC & Co., the city's official tourism organization.

While an influx of visitors is expected for big events next month such as the United Nations General Assembly, leisure travelers likely will stay home feeling it's inappropriate to be enjoying the city at a time when New Yorkers are reliving the dark day, some tourism pros say. Some visitors also may be worried about an anniversary-related attack.

"My feeling is that people are going to stay away from New York until after September 11," said Ron Didner, general manager of Cafe des Artistes, a Manhattan restaurant that draws many tourists. "I've heard a lot of people are afraid of the anniversary day."

The Waldorf-Astoria hotel in midtown Manhattan has no conferences or other big events booked for Sept. 11, said Shelley Clark, a hotel representative. But it expects to be sold out that week because of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 10.

"If it weren't for that, things would be very, very soft," Clark said.

The effects will be felt beyond New York, as well. Airlines will offer fewer flights nationwide on Sept. 11 as many people don't want to fly that day — even though fares are slashed or tickets even free.

At travel agency Intra World Travels & Tours in Evanston, Ill., few travelers — except those booking long-standing business trips — are making plans to come to New York in mid-September, which is generally a popular time to visit, said Dial Gidwani, the owner.

Not all tourists are afraid of coming, however.

"It will probably be one of the safest places to be on that day," said 40-year-old Gregory Pappas of Danielson, Conn., who said he would have traveled here next month but instead timed his family's visit for August to coincide with his parents' wedding anniversary.

The Sept. 11 memorial events also are expected to draw "patriot" travelers from around the United States — particularly rescue workers who rushed to help with the recovery in the aftermath of the attacks, said Cristyne Nicholas, head of NYC & Co.

"We have a strong indication that many of the rescue workers ... want to come back," she said.

Tourism officials are encouraging businesses to stay open on Sept. 11. Some Broadway shows, however, will remain dark out of respect for the memorial commemorations.

"People have been watching September — we've known that this is going to be a very difficult period," Nicholas said. "But we also owe it to our city to stay open."

— Reuters