/ 29 July 2011

9/11 victims’ relatives to meet attorney general

Relatives of victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York are to meet the United States’s top law enforcement official to discuss allegations that journalists working for News Corporation tried to gain access to the phone records of the dead.

US attorney general Eric Holder has agreed to see a group of family members and their legal representative to discuss the progress of a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) probe. A date for the meeting has yet to be set, but the agreement to hold it is a sign of how seriously the inquiry is being taken.

Norman Siegel, a New York-based lawyer who represents 20 families who lost loved ones on September 11 2001, confirmed the meeting and said he intended to take as many of the relatives as possible to see Holder in Washington. “We want a thorough investigation,” he said.

The allegation that News of the World reporters attempted to gain unauthorised access to victims’ voicemails was made in an article in the London Daily Mirror early in July. The paper said the journalists had approached a former New York police officer working as a private detective and asked him to do the hacking, which he declined to do.

So far no evidence has emerged to corroborate the Mirror‘s story but, should the allegations firm up, News Corporation could face a rash of civil litigation from family members. Lawyers have begun to hold preliminary discussions with relatives to point out their legal options.

“If there is something to the story, then there are a number of different claims that people could file,” said Mark Vlasic, a Washington-based lawyer and professor at Georgetown University. Siegel said he had pointed out to the families he represents that civil legal action could be open to them. Any attempt by News of the World reporters to gain access to voicemails, even if such an attempt were unsuccessful, could be liable to penalties.

But Siegel said the priority at this stage was to find out whether the allegations were true.

Sally Regenhard, who lost her firefighter son Christian at the World Trade Centre, said families were adopting a wait-and-see policy: “We just want to know what’s happening with the investigation.”

Another victim’s relative, who asked not to be named, said she had been talking to a lawyer about a possible lawsuit.

“Between Osama bin Laden’s death and the 10th anniversary of 9/11 in September, this is a very stressful time for us. If the phone-hacking allegations turn out to be true, it would be very upsetting for us. It would be such a violation.”

During his testimony to the British Parliament earlier this month, News Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch referred to the 9/11 phone-hacking claim, saying: “We have seen no evidence at all and as far as we know, the FBI haven’t either.” —