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Originally published Friday, February 6, 2009 at 5:20 PM

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Obama meets families of USS Cole, Sept. 11 victims

President Barack Obama held an emotional meeting Friday with relatives of victims of the bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11 attacks who are still waiting for justice to be served years after the deadly acts of terrorism.

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON —

President Barack Obama held an emotional meeting Friday with relatives of victims of the bombing of the USS Cole and the Sept. 11 attacks who are still waiting for justice to be served years after the deadly acts of terrorism.

Obama promised the roughly 40 family members who attended that the meeting would be the first of many.

Some of the victims' relatives said they welcomed Obama's gesture. Still, they aren't entirely convinced that his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, facility, where terrorism suspects are being detained, and halt legal action on their cases is the right thing to do.

Obama has expressed concerns about the fact that detainees have been held for years without trial. He has signed an executive order to close the facility within a year while the administration reviews other options for seeing that the detainees get their day in court.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, commanding officer of the Cole at the time of the Oct. 12, 2000, bombing, said he was disappointed when he first learned of the decision and remained skeptical. He also faulted Obama for not consulting the families ahead of time.

"In principle, his reason for closing it may be good," Lippold, a defense adviser to Military Families United, told reporters after the hourlong meeting.

Lippold said Obama's stance is "well-intentioned, but the problem I have remains that we still don't have any procedures" for what will become of the terror suspects after the detention center is closed.

Lippold was commander of the USS Cole when al-Qaida suicide bombers struck as it sat in a port in Yemen, killing 17 U.S. sailors.

The White House said Obama made clear at the meeting, held next door at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, that his most important responsibility is keeping the American people safe.

He also explained why he thinks closing the Guantanamo facility will make the country safer and "help ensure that those who are guilty receive swift and certain justice within a legal framework that is durable, and that helps America fight terrorism more effectively around the world."

The meeting took place a day after a senior Pentagon judge dropped charges against Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, an al-Qaida suspect held at Guantanamo and accused of masterminding the USS Cole bombing. New charges against al-Nashiri could be brought later, and he will remain in custody for the time being.

A legal move late Thursday by Susan J. Crawford, the top legal authority for military trials at Guantanamo, marked the last active war crimes case there.

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The Obama administration is reviewing the system to make sure the 245 suspects remaining there are given international and U.S. legal rights. That review largely will determine whether the terror suspects should be tried in U.S. courts or released to other countries.

The White House said the meeting was the first the USS Cole victims have had with a president.

Lippold said the meeting was very emotional, and that the discussion largely focused on how to deal with the detainees, the impact of the decision on trials and what it would mean to the U.S. image abroad.

He said he expected the families would be asked for input after the 120-day review period.

"I'm looking forward to working with them as we have never had an opportunity as families to help shape policy when it comes to keeping our nation safe," Lippold said.

John Clodfelter, an Air Force veteran who lost his son, Kenneth, on the USS Cole, said he went into the meeting with a negative attitude.

"I didn't vote for the man," he said, still emotional hours after the meeting. "But ... the way he conducts himself, the way he talks, you can't help but believe him."

Clodfelter also expressed frustration with the lack of a trial for al-Nashiri eight years after the attack.

"We should have already had this man tried and executed if that's what the case is," he said. "I can't imagine an American that's in one of our prisons for eight years without anything being done for him."

Sally Regenhard, who lost her son, Christian, during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on New York's World Trade Center, said the families had a good experience with Obama.

"He said that he's going to make sure that justice is done regarding the terrorists," she said in a telephone interview. "And we'll have an open line of communication with the White House regarding the family members. That's revolutionary."

"He assured us that he wants the same things that we want," Regenhard added.

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Associated Press writer Amy Westfeldt in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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