Fourteen years after a truck bomb ripped through the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, the families of 12 Americans killed in the attack are still fighting for federal compensation that has been granted to other terrorism victims — a struggle that has left many feeling betrayed and forgotten.
The effort by the families, including two from Maryland, has raised difficult questions about who is entitled to federal support when relatives are killed by an act of terrorism directed at the United States, and how much money is fair. Congress has been unwilling to answer those questions.
Now Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, has tucked language into a spending measure that would require the State Department to develop a plan to pay the families — the most recent in a series of bills that have been introduced since the attack. Both the underlying legislation and Mikulski's amendment have broad bipartisan support.
The families victimized by the attacks, carried out by al-Qaida before most Americans had ever heard of the group, have sought recognition from Congress for years. During that time, lawmakers and administration officials have agreed to pay those who lost family members in the attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as three Chinese families who lost relatives in an accidental U.S. bombing in 1999. But efforts to gain compensation for the families of those killed in Kenya in 1998 have stalled repeatedly.
"Because it happened to our embassy, many people don't think about it as American soil, but that is American property," said Edith Bartley, a Prince George's County resident whose father and brother were killed in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. "Those families, that embassy, our nation were targeted in Kenya. It was the same as 9/11."
Past legislation would have set aside nearly $1 million for each family. Mikulski's approach is less direct: Rather than specifying an amount of money, the proposal would require the State Department to develop policies for how to compensate survivors when employees are killed at work. Supporters hope the back-door approach will lead to the same result.
The amendment was added to a bill to fund the State Department. That spending legislation was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 29-1 vote May 24.
Families of Foreign Service workers killed in the line of duty receive up to $10,000 in death gratuity and one year's salary. Congress has in some cases approved more money for victims, including those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Families who lost relatives in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and in the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, for instance, received no additional money from Washington.
Those who lost kin in the Nairobi bombing say the comparison to the Oklahoma City attack is not analogous; the link to al-Qaida, they say, makes the East Africa bombings more similar to the Sept. 11 attacks. They say the State Department's current policy unfairly treats Foreign Service workers killed in a car accident, for example, the same as those who died in a major terrorist attack.
That argument has won bipartisan support among some lawmakers. Language similar to Mikulski's is being carried in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, and Florida Rep. Allen West, who is among the more conservative Republicans in Congress.
Mikulski said objections by the State Department have stymied past efforts.
"What we get is not a compassionate response but a lawyer response that if we do this, we're going to set a precedent," Mikulski said of her efforts to negotiate with department officials. "But we're establishing a precedent by not doing anything, even though these people died on American soil, died at their duty stations."
A State Department spokeswoman declined to comment on Mikulski's effort or negotiations. Asked about the issue during a House subcommittee hearing last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who was the first lady at the time of the East Africa attacks — was noncommittal.
"I can't make any promises," Clinton told Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr., an Illinois Democrat. "But I will certainly work with you on that."
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents active and retired Foreign Service employees, is studying Mikulski's proposal. The group supports "full compensation for all necessary expenses which the victim's survivors must bear, in order to allow the children to reach sustainable adulthood," spokesman Thomas W. Switzer said in a statement.
The bombings took place almost simultaneously on Aug. 7, 1998, at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The explosions were so powerful that they were recorded on seismographs miles away. More than 200 people were killed in Nairobi — most of them Kenyans — and 11 died in Tanzania. Thousands were wounded.
Bartley's father, Julian L. Bartley Sr., was the consul general in Nairobi. A Florida native raised in New York, he was recruited by the department in the 1970s and served in Seoul, Madrid, Tel Aviv and elsewhere before the assignment to Kenya. He was 54 when he died. His son, Julian L. Bartley Jr., was 20 and was interning at the embassy at the time of the attacks.
"My father always instilled the importance of treating people with respect and dignity," said Edith Bartley, an education lobbyist. "We've continued to do that even though we have not been treated the same way by the very agency for which they worked."
A second Marylander with ties to the attack, Tamina Dalizu, did not respond to requests for comment. Dalizu's mother was killed in the bombing.
Howard Kavaler, now of McLean, Va., and his wife worked in the Nairobi embassy. His wife, Prabhi Guptara Kavaler, was killed. She was 45.
Kavaler recalls asking days earlier during a security briefing what would happen if the embassy were targeted in an attack similar to one at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen and one Saudi in 1996. He has never forgotten the response: "We are dead meat."
Congress approved $1.8 billion in emergency spending to improve defenses at its embassies and consulates around the world after the 1998 attacks. The victims' families say that indicates security was not as strong as it should have been at the time of the attacks.
"It's a matter of equity," Kavaler said. "The government bears some responsibility to assist us because of the fact that we were not provided a safe working environment."
More than 5,500 people were compensated by the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, created by Congress after the 2001 attacks, with an average award of $2 million. In 2011, the Obama administration opened the fund to claims from thousands of first responders and volunteers who became sick after working at the World Trade Center site after the attacks.
The survivors of those killed in Nairobi also note that three Chinese families received $4.5 million from the State Department after U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999.
But previous efforts to provide the victims of the Africa bombings with more compensation have failed. The House voted overwhelmingly in 2002, 2007 and 2009 to support that effort, but the legislation languished in the Senate. The families have hired a Washington law firm, Crowell & Moring, to lobby Congress on the issue, disclosure records show.
Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, has long pushed for the compensation. In an interview, Blunt described the lack of progress as "a real inequity for the way these families were dealt with for more than a decade now."
Bartley, a spokeswoman for the families, said she worries that the bombings that had such a profound impact on her life are slipping from the public's consciousness. The tragedy for the families, she said, was the same as was experienced by thousands on 9/11.
"The horror was the same — it just wasn't on the same scale," she said. "We will keep pressing."
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