Beverly Eckert rose very early on February 6 to catch the 8 a.m. Acela train out of Stamford, CT, but she was eager to make the trip to Washington, DC, this time around. On past journeys, the doors of official Washington would too often slam in her face. But now, she and other 9/11 family members had an appointment to meet with President Obama himself. So Eckert was keen to deliver by hand a letter she had written the day before, which laid out her fervent hope for a resolution of one of the last questions arising from the 9/11 attacks: what should happen to the accused?
Dear Mr. President,
On 9/11 my husband was killed by terrorists. The self-confessed mastermind of the plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, has been in US custody for several years. Along with other 9/11 families, I want to see him, and his alleged co-conspirators, face their accusers in a court of law.
The meeting had been arranged hastily, and came as a surprise to many of those invited: mainly relatives of the 9/11 and USS Cole attacks. There were phone calls from the White House just days before, and hastily arranged conference calls among family members. What started out as a small gathering of about 16 at the White House quickly grew to more than 30 at the more spacious Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door. And as the plans for the meeting unfolded, Eckert learned that she and other supporters of Obama’s decision to close the detainee center would be joined by opponents.
All of this was cause for both optimism and worry for Eckert. The meeting was “a good sign,” she had told me, because family members had been calling for one all along. But because of the large number of attendees, many with conflicting agendas, Eckert worried that a good chance to speak with the president would be wasted, and there wouldn’t be another meeting if this one turned out to be “too much of a free-for-all.” To ensure a positive outcome, Eckert’s priorities were to deliver a clear and convincing message, and to ensure that family members would be part of a continuing discussion about the detainee issue.
I had first met Beverly on March 24, 2004, when I interviewed her for an article for HNN about the testimony of Richard Clarke before the 9/11 Commission. She was a member of the Family Steering Committee (FSC) , a group of 9/11 family members who had become active in efforts to find answers and press for reform. A few months later, Eckert and I began to collaborate on a book about her government reform efforts and those of her FSC colleagues. Eckert had dedicated her tireless efforts to the memory of her husband, Sean Rooney, from ensuring that skyscrapers were safer to fixing a broken intelligence system.
She was determined that some good would come out of her personal loss, this national tragedy. So the idea of leaving behind a balanced historical account of her work in Washington appealed to her. It would serve as a sort of “written memorial,” preserving on the printed page an improbable David-and-Goliath political struggle, and as another testament to her love for Sean. Through many conversations and emails, Eckert revealed details of her long, frustrating, but eventually triumphant odyssey of lobbying and reform, so that I could present the story to others.
When they first came to Washington, Eckert and the other 9/11 citizen advocates knew little or nothing about how to pull the strings of power and influence, but they learned quickly and put their knowledge to effective use. Not only had they succeeded in creating the 9/11 Commission, on December 17, 2004, Eckert and other family members attended the signing of the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004, which implemented significant recommendations contained in the 9/11 Commission Report. There were smiles and hugs and tears among those who had fought so long and hard for the moment. Eckert told me that one triumphant congressional staffer had pulled her aside after the political victory and said, “You rolled Washington!”
The intense emotional and physical strain of forcing the Washington bureaucracy to change had taken its toll on Eckert, and she devoted some time to recharging her batteries by taking time off from her political battles. But in the past year she came back, refreshed and eager to tend to what she saw as unfinished 9/11 business.
This past September 10, for example, Eckert joined other family members at a meeting organized by the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, in order to lay out their plans for dealing with the Guantanamo detainees. Eckert presented the commission with a letter stating her opposition to the process. But afterward she had told me she didn’t feel this lone act was enough. In October she emailed me: “I’m feeling that I have to do something more effective about Guantanamo Bay than my private protest in DC….” And she thought of working with the ACLU and other, like-minded 9/11 family members.
It did not take long for Eckert’s efforts to bear fruit. On December 10, the ACLU released a statement signed by Eckert and 30 other 9/11 family members, including several who had been members of the FSC. The statement criticized the Office of Military Commissions for allowing preferential access to the hearings to 9/11 family members who supported the Bush administration’s policies. In addition, the statement called the commission hearings “secretive and unconstitutional,” and pressed for a “fresh start” for the detainee cases in US courts.
When Barack Obama was elected, he promised change, and his approach to addressing a variety of issues, including the detainees’ fate, differed markedly from that of the Bush administration’s. Whereas in the past the norm was to make policy in secret, consulting only with supporters and totally shutting opponents, President Obama has made a point of listening to a broad range of voices, and making an effort at transparency in his policy deliberations. This new approach made Eckert hopeful.
…When confronted with defendants accused of crimes against humanity on the scale of September 11th, the depth of our nation’s commitment to the principle of justice is severely tested. I believe, Mr. President, that under your moral guidance and with your profound respect for the rule of law, America can pass this test….
I beg you to proceed with urgency and determination where others have faltered. Let justice, not vengeance, at long last be served.
Widow of Sean Rooney, WTC
After the meeting, while waiting at the airport for her flight home, Eckert’s earlier apprehensions about the meeting seemed to evaporate as she chatted with one of her 9/11 colleagues, Rosemary Dillard. “Having a president who is willing to meet ordinary citizens like us,” said Eckert, “and make himself available for questioning even from those who were in opposition to his agenda made me very proud to be an American.”
Six days later, Eckert and 49 others perished in the crash of Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, not far from Buffalo, NY. Her meeting with the president was the last episode of her life as 9/11 reformer.
Anthony Toth is an historian and writer living in Arlington, Viriginia. He studied journalism and history, and received a doctorate from Oxford in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written many articles and book chapters, and his first book is a history of Kuwait during its transition to the oil era, due out in 2009.
For information on Beverly Eckert and the book project about her 9/11 reform work, visit http://notruerhearts.blogspot.com.
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