Terrorism Victims Want Compensation

Mariane Pearl was widowed after terrorists likely linked to Al Qaeda murdered her husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Danny Pearl (search), in February 2002.

But unlike the thousands of family members of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Pearl is ineligible for the funds set aside in the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (search).

Now she is taking her case to Capitol Hill, arguing that a new law should be passed so that she and her son Adam, 2, can receive compensation. Pearl is not alone as some families of victims of other terror attacks also make the case that the fund should be broader.

"It's not as much financial security for herself as it is for her young child," said Pearl lobbyist and lawyer David Remes. "Adam was born shortly after the death of his father, who "was the family's main breadwinner," Remes said.

The fund, which is available only to families of victims from Sept. 11, has paid an average benefit of $1.8 million to the relatives of deceased victims, for a total of over $2.6 billion so far. Many claims still have to be processed.

Kenneth Feinberg (search), head of the program, declared in April that the fund is a "dramatic success," and announced that 98 percent of eligible victims had filed claims by the Dec. 22, 2003, deadline.

The fund is part of a law titled "To preserve the continued viability of the United States air transportation system" and passed just 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the primary goal of shoring up the threatened airline industry, government payouts were meant to preempt lawsuits. Those who receive the payouts are barred from filing lawsuits against parties that are not knowing participants in a terrorist act.

"That statute was created so that people wouldn’t sue the airlines after 9/11. The Victim Compensation Fund grew out of an effort to protect the airlines. People have possibly forgotten that that was the original intent," said Nikki Stern, who lost her husband Jim Potorti in the World Trade Center.

"Certainly, in theory, to have a fund to help victims of terrorism is not a bad idea. ... Maybe that’s something our government could look into doing," Stern said.

Applications to the fund from families of non-Sept. 11 terrorism victims, including Pearl's, have been rejected. Families of victims in the USS Cole, Khobar Towers and Oklahoma City bombings have all asked about their eligibility.

But no legal ambiguity makes these claims admissible.

The legislation was "very specifically tailored. The fund itself cannot change without legislative interventions," said Department of Justice spokesman Charles Miller.

Remes, who is working pro bono for Pearl, is not alone in his pursuit to expand the legislation. Lobbyists are working on behalf of victims of the USS Cole (search) and the Kenya embassy bombing.

Remes said his client has a strong case for being permitted to join the fund.

"Danny Pearl was brutally killed in the course of investigating people who were involved in the 9/11 attacks," he said.

Pearl was kidnapped while in Pakistan working a story about convicted shoe bomber Richard Reid. He was killed by terrorists from The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty, a group U.S. authorities believe is tied to Al Qaeda.

Karen Hastie Williams, a lobbyist representing the victims of the 1998 bombing in Kenya, argued that the commission investigating government actions to combat terror before Sept. 11 has indicated that the government withheld valuable information, and therefore the victims of terrorism before Sept. 11 deserve to be compensated.

Williams said that lawmakers fear an open-ended commitment, but given that "everyone's on notice" now, she doesn't think the government would be held responsible for compensating future victims.

Capitol Hill faces no shortage of legislative proposals, but so far nothing has passed. Despite the obvious enthusiasm from some lawmakers, Sen. Orrin Hatch (search), R-Utah., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has held back several bills.

Sen. Don Nickles (search), R-Okla., said he believes the fund should also be open to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombings, in which 168 people were killed. Although Nickles has no legislation specifically in the works, he "believes as a matter of fairness that Oklahoma City victims should be included as well, but it looks like chances for that are pretty remote," said Nickles spokeswoman Rachel Oliphant.

In October, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., introduced the Anthrax Victims Fund Fairness Act (search) to allow compensation under the terms offered by the Victim Compensation Fund for those affected by the anthrax delivered by mail to the Senate in the fall of 2001. Leahy and Daschle were the targets of those attacks, but were not infected and would not be eligible for relief.

Leahy Spokesman David Carle said the bill is alive and Leahy "still does hope that it will be brought up, but it is up to Chairman Hatch."

Sen. Arlen Specter (search), R-Pa., has crafted legislation to expand the Sept. 11 fund to include the Americans killed by Al Qaeda in the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the USS Cole in 2000.

Specter, who was battling a primary challenger this week, did not return phone calls, but others involved in the legislation say it is very much still alive.

Williams said she was still hoping for action this session. "Specter is still determined to get the bill passed," she said.