WASHINGTON — Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday called a report of possible phone hacking targeting 9/11 victims and their families very disturbing and he assured them in a lengthy meeting that the department is pursuing a preliminary criminal investigation of the matter.
At a news conference outside the Justice Department after the 75-minute session, the family members and their lawyer said they were pleased at the attorney general's comments about the ongoing probe – which is in the preliminary stages – into whether Sept. 11 victims or their families were the focus of phone hacking by journalists at Rupert Murdoch's now-shuttered News of the World.
The lawyer for the families, Norman Siegel, told reporters that the attorney general had used the words "very disturbing" to describe the possibility that cellphones of 9/11 victims and their family members might have been hacked. Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler confirmed that account of the meeting.
"The attorney general said this was ... the beginning of a dialogue" with 9/11 families, Siegel said.
Three FBI officials participated in the session along with five Justice Department officials.The FBI's New York City office participated by video hookup.
Siegel said he and the families recommended that the Justice Department get the cellphone numbers of 9/11 victims and family members, then have the phone company search their records to find out whether someone engaged in hacking.
The families also recommended that the scope of the investigation be expanded to computers in addition to cellphones. The families also recommended that investigators undertake a review of newspaper, TV and radio stories about 9/11 victims and their families to determine whether personal information in the stories only could have come from someone engaged in hacking.
"From everything we saw today it certainly appears that the government is taking these allegations very seriously," 9/11 family member Peter Gadiel told the news conference. "I find the idea that somebody would have hacked into my son's cellphone reprehensible. I certainly hope that the individuals responsible are found and prosecuted."
Gadiel's 23-year-old son, James, worked on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower and died in the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I was very encouraged today," said retired New York Deputy Fire Chief Jim Riches, who lost his son, firefighter Jimmy Riches, 29, in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Regarding possible phone hacking, "Eric Holder said this was disgusting if anybody has done it; unconscionable, and he did not in any way want anybody who would possibly have done that get away with it," Riches said outside the Justice Department.
The suggestion that Sept. 11 victim families in the United States might have been subject to phone hacking rests on a single, thinly sourced news story in the Daily Mirror, a London tabloid rival to Murdoch's The Sun.
According to the Daily Mirror's story based on unnamed sources, a former New York police officer who became a private investigator said he rejected requests by journalists from Murdoch's News of the World to retrieve private phone records of Sept. 11 victims. The U.S.-based parent company for Murdoch's News Corp. has called the report "anonymous speculation" with "no substantiation."