WASHINGTON — — 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.