Reporter's widow challenges denial of 9/11 payment
By David W. Chen
New York Times News Service
March 30, 2004
NEW YORK -- It is a 22-page application, typed in boldface and completed in a just-the-facts fashion like thousands of others processed by the federal fund compensating relatives of those killed on Sept. 11. The victim was 38, in the prime of his life, and employed by a Wall Street corporation. His wife was pregnant. His death was horrific.
What makes claim No. 212-005347 different, however, is that it was filed on behalf of Daniel Pearl, the reporter for The Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped in Pakistan, then beheaded, investigators believe, by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, once Al Qaeda's top operational commander and the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 hijackings.
Three weeks ago, the administrator for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Kenneth Feinberg, while expressing deep sympathy, rejected the claim filed by Pearl's widow, Mariane, because it lay outside the bounds of the congressional statute governing the fund.
Pearl and her legal advisers have filed a formal appeal, and are asking Congress to consider drafting a new law that would grant eligibility to her and her son, Adam, who is almost 2 years old. An award from the fund would likely be a tax-free payment of close to $2 million.
In making the claim, Pearl and her lawyer, Robert Kelner, are essentially trying to test the true intent of the fund.
Pearl and Kelner, who in December just beat the fund's deadline for filing, acknowledge the daunting odds they face in pressing their case. Previous efforts to widen the circle of eligibility to cover victims of other terrorist attacks have gone nowhere in Congress. These include, on domestic soil, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and on international ground, the 1998 bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa and the 2000 bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen.
Pearl and Kelner argue that Daniel Pearl was singled out as a symbol of American capitalism, and that his death has since been fodder for propaganda. At the same time, they believe that the case raises important questions as to how, to what extent governments should compensate the victims of terrorist attacks, past, present and future.
Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, based in India, vanished in Karachi, Pakistan, on Jan. 23, 2002, while researching an article about Islamic extremism. Several weeks later, investigators obtained a videotape that graphically showed Pearl's death at the hands of Mohammed, according to the authorities.
Since then, Pearl, a 36-year-old journalist, has worked to track down her husband's killers. Part of that search was detailed in her memoir, "A Mighty Heart: The Brave Life and Death of My Husband, Danny Pearl."
Pearl said she had few long-term options that would come close to replacing her husband's salary of about $100,000 a year. As a result, some of her legal advisers urged her to apply to the victim compensation fund.
"This whole bizarre thing of associating somebody's death and money is very difficult," Pearl said in an interview. "It's unnatural. It's very uncomfortable. . . . Whatever my emotions, I have to think of my son."
About 98 percent of those eligible for the Sept. 11 fund filed by the December deadline. So far, the government has paid about 1,800 families totaling $2.45 billion, or an average of close to $1.4 million a family.
But barring any acts of Congress, the fund is specific about its criteria: the victims had to have died in New York, Pennsylvania or Washington as a result of the Sept. 11 attack.
"I'm very sympathetic to the inquiry, but the statute is the statute, and I do not have any discretion," Feinberg said. "But the application does raise the fundamental question as to why 9/11--and not other terrorist attacks or other acts of terror both at home or abroad--is covered. I think Congress will address at some point whether the 9/11 compensation fund should be a precedent for future compensation or whether it is a unique response to a unique historical event."