|Ruling Favors Limited
Access to 9/11 Data
By BENJAMIN WEISER
federal judge, acknowledging
national security concerns, ruled
yesterday that the government should have
a say in what is turned over to the
families that have sued airlines, security
firms, and others in the aftermath of the
Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein of Federal
District Court in Manhattan, ordered a
temporary halt to the progress of the
lawsuits until the government and lawyers
for the families come up with a way to
screen information and satisfy the
government's concerns that sensitive
material is not disclosed.
In their suits, the families' lawyers have
been seeking records involving airline
security and other information that could
expose the vulnerabilities or failures of
the airlines, airports, and government
Government officials had cited "grave
national security concerns" that
information might be disclosed in the
pretrial stages of the suits that could
compromise security and public safety.
They said that commercial air carriers and
their contractors possessed information
about anti-terrorist measures that would
remain effective only if the measures were
closely held, and disclosing them could
"endanger the traveling public."
In court yesterday, Judge Hellerstein
agreed, saying the government "has a
very important voice" that should be
heard in the case. "It's very clear
to me that intervention is
appropriate," he said.
He also advised plaintiffs' lawyers to
begin obtaining government security
clearances, which would allow them to see
highly sensitive data. "They'll want
access to information you won't be happy
to give out," the judge told Daniel
S. Alter, a lawyer for the government.
Mr. Alter, an assistant United States
attorney in Manhattan who said he was
representing the Transportation Security
Administration, cautioned that there might
be materials that were "so
sensitive" that they "can't be
Security clearances for lawyers are
unusual but not unprecedented in sensitive
court matters. Such clearances were
required, for example, for defense lawyers
in last year's embassy bombings trial in
After yesterday's hearing, one plaintiff's
lawyer, John A. Greaves, said he was
satisfied that the process ordered by the
judge would not allow the government to
make a unilateral decision on what
information could be kept from plaintiffs.
"Our big concern was we don't want
them to have carte blanche," Mr.
He added that decisions would be made on a
case-by-case basis as to what could be
disclosed. But even with a system in
place, he said, he would not hesitate to
go to the judge if he felt the government
was being too restrictive.
Before the hearing, Ellen Mariani, whose
husband, Louis, also known as Neil, was on
the flight that
crashed into the south tower of the World
Trade Center, said, "I want the
She continued, "I don't feel that
anybody should be sifting portions out of
my court lawsuit. If they have nothing to
hide, bring it out into the open."
But reached by phone at her New Hampshire
home last night, she said she had left
court with a much better feeling.
"I think he's going to be very
fair," she said of the judge. "I
watched him. I looked at his eyes. I came
out with a much better feeling."
She added, "He laid down the rules,
the ground rules, and I didn't think it
was unfair at all."
The prospect that the parties might soon
begin to exchange information before
trial, a process known as discovery,
prompted lawyers for families who have not
yet decided whether to sue to ask that the
pace be slowed somewhat.
The lawyers told the judge that in many
cases their clients had not yet decided
whether to sue or to take part in the
federal Victim Compensation Fund, which
was established as an alternative to
Through the fund, families may be eligible
for payments of more than $1 million
without the usual delays, costs, or
challenges of proving a legal case. But
people who sue could theoretically win
higher damages, while facing the typical
risk of long court battles, or winning
In a separate matter, Judge Hellerstein
said that two plaintiffs who were suing
under pseudonyms should use their actual
Their lawyer cited privacy reasons, saying
the two had received constant calls from
the news media.
But the judge said he viewed a lawsuit as
a "public event."
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