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Domestic Security Bill Riles 9/11 Families

WASHINGTON, Nov. 25 Donald W. Goodrich never considered himself particularly cynical about the ways of Washington, but as President Bush signed the domestic security bill, Mr. Goodrich found himself deeply disillusioned today about the intersection he has observed between politics and the protection of the nation.
November 26, 2002

Domestic Security Bill Riles 9/11 Families

To think that they're invoking the name of my son and all the other victims for a bill this bad, it's really offensive," said Mr. Goodrich, a lawyer from Bennington, Vt., whose son, Peter, died in the plane that hit the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

"People in Washington are attaching their personal agendas and their corporate agendas to a bill that's supposed to protect this country, to make sure that this kind of attack never happens again," Mr. Goodrich said. "That's very troubling to me and many others like me."

Many families of Sept. 11 victims had expected to give their support to the creation of a Department of Homeland Security as a strong indication of the country's determination to prevent another attack. But in interviews today many relatives, including leaders of the largest family organizations, said they were surprised at how bitter they felt about the partisan politics surrounding the measure. Several expressed fury that Congress had inserted special-interest provisions into the bill that might affect them personally.

Most prominent, the measure includes a section inserted by House Republican leaders that will limit the liability of airport screening companies for any negligence they may have committed in allowing box cutters aboard the planes that day. Relatives of victims who were planning to sue the screening companies for damages found a possible avenue of compensation and information closed.

"Why would the House Republicans give the screening companies a get-out-of-jail-free card at the last minute?" asked Kristen Breitweiser of Middletown, N.J., whose husband, Ronald, died in the trade center and who has been considering a lawsuit against the screeners.

"The families are outraged by this," Ms. Breitweiser said. "We were down there lobbying last week and trying to make the case that this will hurt us, but they did it anyway. It's just a slap in the face to the victims."

The creation of a Homeland Security Department was never the lead agenda item for the family groups, which have become a powerful lobbying force in Washington. After the groups began to coalesce in the months after the attack, their most insistent quest was for information rather than bureaucratic restructuring. They demanded to know whether the government might have known something or done something that could have prevented the attacks, and they persuaded Senate leaders to include their top priority an independent commission to investigate the attacks in the domestic security bill.

But the commission was removed from the bill after the White House balked in a round of partisan finger-pointing. The commission was reinstated at the last minute in a separate intelligence-spending bill after heavy lobbying and news conferences by family leaders. The Homeland Security Department was held up for months while Democrats and Republicans battled over the issue of job protection for workers, and family members said they looked on with disgust as the prevention of another attack seemed to take a backseat to political gamesmanship.

"This whole thing has been hugely disillusioning to me," said MaryEllen Salamone of North Caldwell, N.J., whose husband, John, died in the towers.

"You assume after an event like this that the politicians will do what's right, and then you see that so much of it is political favors and Republican-Democrat stuff," Ms. Salamone said. "I feel like I could write a book about everything I learned about politics that I never wanted to know."

Many family members became critical of the domestic security bill and the process for assembling it, particularly when it became clear that the new department would not substantially reshape the nation's intelligence-gathering apparatus.

"There was a real disappointment when the administration decided not to include the intelligence agencies the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. in the department," said Stephen Push, a leader of Families of Sept. 11, the largest of the organizations. "We knew that the major foul-ups that contributed to 9/11 had to do with the failure of the intelligence agencies to communicate with each other, and it was hard to see how this department would help with that. So we didn't make this one of our legislative priorities."

The indifference turned to anger when House leaders inserted special-interest provisions in the bill that seemed to have little to do with domestic security. One provision would protect the makers of some vaccine ingredients from lawsuits. Another would direct money for security research largely to Texas A&M University. A third would allow the department to contract with companies that leave the country to avoid taxes.

Congressional leaders have vowed to change those provisions next year, but there are no plans to alter the section that provides immunity to airline screening companies.

"Some people say that we should accept the bill as a whole because of the good it does, despite the new amendments," Mr. Goodrich said. "Well, I just don't accept that. I just don't think that politicians should use the tragedy of Sept. 11 as a wedge to gain some kind of unrelated advantage. It's totally upside down."


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