Three families of firefighters killed at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 want to meet with President Barack Obama to urge him to reverse his decision to suspend the trial of five detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who admit roles in the terror attacks.
In a meeting with reporters at their attorney's office on Sunday, the families deplored what they called “delays and confusion” in the former Bush administration's effort to prosecute suspects in the 2001 attacks, which killed about 3,000 people, saying they want “a firm commitment” that the same process won't continue under Obama.
“Seven and a half years is a very long time for 3,000 families to wait,” said Maureen Santora, whose son was among the 343 firefighters killed when the twin towers collapsed after being struck by two hijacked jetliners.
Nearly 2,800 people were killed at the World Trade Center, another 184 when a third hijacked jetliner struck the Pentagon and 40 when a fourth plane crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa. The totals don't include the 19 hijackers.
Along with Santora and her husband, Al Santora, a retired deputy fire chief, the delegation included retired deputy chief Jim Riches and his wife, Rita Riches, whose son was killed on Sept. 11, and Sally Regenhard, whose son also perished at the trade center.
The families' position was spelled out in a brief letter mailed Sunday to Obama, requesting a meeting “at your earliest convenience.”
There was no immediate comment from the White House on Sunday.
Obama, in his first week in office, ordered the Guantanamo Bay prison closed within a year, CIA secret prisons shuttered and abusive interrogations ended.
The families' attorney, Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that Obama, along with announcing his intention to close the prison in eastern Cuba, declared a 120-day cooling-off period to study how to proceed with trials of those suspected of taking part in terrorist acts against the United States.
Siegel said the administration of former President George W. Bush had “screwed up every possible option” for swift and effective prosecution of the Sept. 11 terrorists in part by creating a Military Commission to try the suspects that subsequently was ruled unconstitutional in some respects by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The options bypassed by the Bush White House, Siegel said, included defining the suspects as prisoners of war, which would make them subject to the Geneva treaties; submitting the cases to an international court of justice; and trying them in New York federal court, which has extensive experience with previous terrorism cases including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
“So now Obama's people, who I have confidence in, should look at this stuff, make some hard decisions and move judiciously,” he said. “These people (the victims' families) should be involved in this. It's a good test of the Obama rhetoric of listening to the people.”
From a legal standpoint, the families _ some 50 in all, according to those present on Sunday _ have “standing and moral credibility” to be part of the proceedings, Siegel said.
“These 9/11 families can't understand why it has taken so long in cases where ample evidence exists,” he said.
He added that “the $64 million question” was why the five detainees who have openly acknowledged their part in terrorist acts in court were not simply ruled guilty and sentenced.
In the statement outlining their concerns and in separate comments, the family members told of sitting through the trial in Guantanamo and another trial in which so-called “20th hijacker” Zacarias Moussaoui was convicted, appalled by the defendants' boasts of having taken part in the attacks.
“They showed absolute disdain for the system,” Al Santora said.
Jim Riches told of “seeing these murderers stand up in court, disrupt the court and say they were proud of what they did.”
“I wanted to go through the glass and grab these guys,” he said.
Riches also quoted prosecutors at Guantanamo as saying they had “mountains of evidence” collected by methods that were untainted by allegations of torture or other factors and thus would not be an obstacle to further prosecutions.
Siegel said American law “does not allow people to sit in jail indefinitely,” and he did not understand “why, if they have independent evidence, they didn't use it.”
In their statement, which accompanied the letter to Obama, the families stressed that their interest was in legal proceedings, before the Military Commission or in federal courts, that were “forthcoming, open and fair.”
“Our hope is that a change of policy on the Guantanamo detainees can bring about the eventual prosecution and conviction of those responsible for the horrific and despicable acts of terrorism endured by innocent victims,” it said.