President Bush made his early reputation for toughness in the face of the terrorist challenge with his response to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, but some of his severest critics now are members of survivor families.
Some members of the families were particularly harsh in their testimony last week to the commission investigating the September 11 attacks, in which nearly 3,000 persons died.
One of the groups is linked, indirectly, to a foundation chaired by Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Two of the groups, the September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows and the Jersey Girls have been particularly harsh in their criticism of Mr. Bush’s use of September 11 video footage in campaign ads.
Peaceful Tomorrows advocates rolling back sections of the administration-backed USA Patriot Act, which it describes as “serious threats to the exercise of our constitutional rights.”
The groups’ efforts have prompted conservative organizations as well as pundits and watchdog agencies to accuse the groups of using September 11 for partisanship — accusations that both organizations deny.
In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal called the Jersey Girls “subsidiaries of established anti-Bush forces — political entities committed to defeating the president this fall.”
Colleen Kelly, Peaceful Tomorrows’ New York regional spokeswoman, yesterday said such assertions are inaccurate and said the group did not receive funding from those seeking to influence elections.
Her group seeks only “to learn the truth about what happened that day, in the days leading up to it and to protect the country against future attacks.”
Peaceful Tomorrows says it has a membership of 122 relatives of September 11 victims and “thousands of supporters,” and describes itself as an “advocacy organization” founded by family members of September 11 victims who are united in seeking “effective, nonviolent solutions to terrorism.”
“Many have described us as a driving force in this investigation, when actually it’s the families’ steering committee,” said Mrs. Kelly, referring to the group’s 12-member committee of relatives of September 11 victims.
“All they are looking for is the truth of what happened and how it can be kept from happening again.”
Peaceful Tomorrows, however, has a relationship with the liberal San Francisco-based Tides Foundation and a subsidiary organization known as the Tides Center, which have given $1.5 million to antiwar efforts since the September 11 attacks. Several members of Peaceful Tomorrows were arrested last year outside the Capitol Building in Washington protesting the Iraq war.
The Tides Foundation separately is tied to endowments chaired by Mrs. Kerry, heiress to the $500 million Heinz fortune.
The Howard Heinz Endowment and the Vira I. Heinz Endowment awarded the Tides Foundation grants totaling $230,000 from 1994 to 1998 to support a pollution prevention initiative and other environmentally friendly practices by industries in Western Pennsylvania. The Tides Center has received additional support from the Heinz Endowments, specifically to support projects in Pennsylvania.
The Tides Foundation, Tides center and Groundspring.org provide Peaceful Tomorrows with administrative and financial services. Peaceful Tomorrows pays as a fee 9 percent of all the funds it raises. In 2002 and 2003, the foundation gave Peaceful Tomorrows four grants totaling $34,665.
The Jersey Girls, according to September 11 commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean, a Republican and the former governor of New Jersey, were instrumental in getting the commission organized. He said he doubts “very much” that the commission would be in business without the involvement of the Jersey Girls.
The Jersey Girls, a handful of New Jersey women who lost their husbands in the suicide strikes on the World Trade Center, have accused the Bush administration of failing to properly respond to the September 11 attacks and not knowing beforehand such attacks were imminent, despite intelligence hints. Three of its members are on the families’ steering committee at Peaceful Tomorrows.
They have singled out National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for criticism, saying she failed to do her job. One of the group’s most quoted members, Kristen Breitweiser, routinely says the nearly 3,000 people who died on September 11 were “murdered on Bush’s watch.”
When the September 11 commission said it lacked sufficient funds to get the job done, the Jersey Girls lobbied Congress to get more money allocated for the project. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, at first would not agree, but relented when the Jersey Girls confronted him at his Washington office.
Much of the criticism of the Jersey Girls originated on the Web site FreeRepublic.com and with Rush Limbaugh. They accused the women of partisan politics in an effort to damage Mr. Bush’s re-election chances.
Mr. Limbaugh said the women were “poisoned by their hate,” referring to the organization as Democratic “campaign consultants … not grieving family members … obsessed with rage and hatred.”
The New Jersey women came together after the Justice Department announced a $15 billion victims’ compensation fund. They said the package was arbitrary and unfair, stating their position in a letter to the department, which was signed by hundreds of September 11 relatives.
The fund later announced the average settlement would be $1.85 million, $200,000 higher than previously estimated. The Jersey Girls then turned their attention to calling for an independent investigation of September 11, which Congress later approved in a 90-8 vote.