BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Kenneth R. Feinberg, how did you call the book you that just wrote “What Is Life Worth?“
KENNETH FEINBERG, FORMER SPECIAL MASTER, 9/11 VICTIM COMPENSATION FUND: … delegated to me, and really me alone, the requirement -- the obligation to try and calculate what each death caused by 9/11, or each physical injury should be paid out of the public funds.
LAMB: What were you called?
FEINBERG: I was called, it‘s a rather judicial term, a special master. That connotes in the law somebody who is sort of delegated authority, usually by a court, to act as some administrative arm of the court to administer or (INAUDIBLE) a settlement and then to allocate the proceeds of a settlement.
LAMB: How many people did you award money to and how much?
FEINBERG: I awarded $7 billion of taxpayer funds, all public funds, to approximately 5,300 people, 3,000 -- roughly, 2,900, families who lost a loved one on 9/11. And the remaining claims were physical injury claims to survivors of 9/11.
LAMB: What was the largest award? What was the smallest award? And what was the median?
FEINBERG: The largest award was about $8.6 million, tax free, to an individual who survived the World Trade Center collapse with third degree burns over 85 percent of her body, who came to see me.
The smallest award was $500 to somebody who broke a finger escaping from the World Trade Center. The average award, tax free, in this program, was $2 million. And the median award, half got more, half got less, was about $1.7 million.
LAMB: What was the hardest part of your job?
FEINBERG: Clearly the hardest part was the decision I made in designing the program to meet with any individual family or individual victim who survived who wanted to seem me personally to discuss their plight, why they felt they were entitled to more money, why they felt that 9/11 was an unfair, unjust curveball thrown at them.
And accordingly over a 33-month period I met with about 1,500 individual family members, and that was harrowing.
LAMB: Which meeting -- and I know you‘re reluctant to give names in this, but which meeting do you remember the most?
FEINBERG: The very first. The very first meeting a woman came to see me, 25 years old, crying, sobbing.
Mr. Feinberg, I lost my husband in the World Trade Center and you have awarded me about $1 million to take of my two little children, 6 and 4, who lost their father. I need more money and I need it fast.
And I said to her, why? Why do you need more and what is this request that you‘ve made for speed?
Well, you see, Mr. Feinberg, I have terminal cancer, I only have two months to live. My husband was going to survive me and take care of the children, now they‘re going to be orphans. Can you please help me quickly?
And we did. I substantially increased the award, accelerated the payments, and she died two months later, but at least knowing that a structured program -- financial program had been set up for her two surviving small children. Hundreds like that, hundreds.
LAMB: Give us another meeting you remember.
FEINBERG: Mr. Feinberg, I lost my husband, he was a fireman and he died at the World Trade Center. And I just want you to know that there is no God, Mr. Feinberg, because my husband rescued 30 people from the World Trade Center and brought them to safety. His battalion chief said, stay here, too dangerous, don‘t go back. And he said, I‘m sorry, there are 10 more people trapped in the mezzanine of the World Trade Center.
And then she said: While he was running back across the World Trade Center Plaza, he was killed by somebody who jumped to their death from the 103rd floor and hit him. If he had been one step either way, Mr. Feinberg, he might have survived. But like a coordinated missile, somebody leaped to their death from the 103rd floor and hit him, killing them both. And I want you to know, Mr. Feinberg, that no amount of money, there is no justice, why me? Why me? Why my husband? Stories like that.
LAMB: Did you ever get mad at somebody?
FEINBERG: Never. Never. I think it‘s critically important, and the public understood this, the public understood, these people were in grief, the victims of life‘s misfortune, traumatic deaths, perfunctory good-byes that morning, see you for dinner, never saw their kid again, never saw their spouse again, vaporized.
Frustration, not anger, I never got mad at anybody. Frustration sometimes.
LAMB: Did anybody ever threaten you?
FEINBERG: No. Well, there were some pretty difficult moments, anger, invective, epithets, but no, I was never threatened.
LAMB: What were the circumstances when somebody came to meet with you? How long did they meet with you? Where did they meet with you? And were there other people in the room?
FEINBERG: Both. We first met -- over a year, I thought it very important to walk into the lion‘s den. And I met groups of families: firefighter widows; servicemen widows at the Pentagon. We filled up the Marriott Marquis ballroom in Manhattan with the survivors of roughly 850 Cantor Fitzgerald victims who all died at the World Trade Center. A whole ballroom filled with angry, grieving people.
And I spent a good year-and-a-half, probably, going around the country, around the world, meeting with groups of families who needed to understand the program. Then I also met with individual families over a course of 33 months.
LAMB: You talk in your book about the different reaction you got in different parts of the country: New York versus California versus London. Explain.
FEINBERG: It‘s interesting. It‘s sort of a cultural phenomenon. When I met with families in New York, in groups, angry: Where‘s my money? The government caused this. This should have been prevented. And you‘re the visible representative of the government and you had better pay.
Virginia, the Pentagon, the servicemen, very respectful. Thank you for coming, Mr. Feinberg. We appreciate you‘re here. We would like to present a plague for your service. Anything you can do we appreciate what our government is trying to do.
California, sort of a public outpouring of grief. Hold hands, let‘s say a public prayer. And…
FEINBERG: London, disbelief, skepticism about the wisdom of the -- not the wisdom, skepticism about the program itself. You mean to tell me, Mr. Feinberg, that my son, an English citizen, died at the Pentagon, and your government is going to give me $2 million tax free? What‘s the catch? Do we have to give up our citizenship?
Do we have to surrender our passports?
Do we have to come to the United States to get the money?
What‘s the catch? Why is America doing this for us?
Undocumented families who lost a loved in America at the World Trade Center…
LAMB: You say there were 11 of those?
FEINBERG: I think seven, seven I think, maybe -- no, there were 11, 11. Mr. Feinberg, why are you giving us this money? Are you going to deport us if we apply?
Are you going to put us in jail?
Are we going to be fined?
No. I‘m even going to give you a green card.
Skepticism, distrust. Gradually all of these groups came into the fund. We had 97 percent that ultimately opted into the program rather than stay out, which they had a right to do.
LAMB: How long did you personally work on this?
FEINBERG: Thirty-three months, from the time I was appointed I immediately began the design of the program, right up until we cut the last check.
LAMB: Why did you not take money to do this?
FEINBERG: I couldn‘t. I don‘t think any American doing this, in the post-9/11 world, could get paid for this. First of all, I didn‘t think it was right to get paid to serve the people of the United States in an unprecedented, unique task like this.
Second, there was also a practical reality I confronted. These families were angry and they were in grief. If I ever got paid for this, they would have been after me. You‘re getting paid on the blood of my lost wife? How dare you. I had enough formidable challenges without having to deal with that problem.
LAMB: But a lot of people did get paid to help you.
LAMB: How much did you spend in those 33 months?
FEINBERG: We dispensed $7 billion at a cost to the taxpayer of under $100 million. If there was ever a program in the history of our nation where the overhead was kept low relative to the amount of money that was disseminated, this is it.
PricewaterhouseCoopers was awarded a contracted by the Department of Justice to administer the program. Different offices, branch offices of mine calculating awards, opening up files for each and every claimant, a massive task.
They had about 450 people working on this project at its height at a total cost, overhead, everything, less than $100 million.
LAMB: How many people did you have on your staff?
FEINBERG: My staff was very small. I had about 18 people, all lawyers. Some worked pro bono, some were brought to me on detail from the United States Department of Justice or other branch agencies to assist me.
Very lean, very small.
LAMB: Where were you located?
FEINBERG: We had an office at the Department of Justice, but my main office was my law firm. That was where I sort of worked out of, my law firm, where I had the support staff. But we also had branch offices throughout the United States in areas where there was a substantial group of claimants.
LAMB: Which experience in your own life probably had the biggest impact on your ability to pull this off?
FEINBERG: This proved unique. The closest that -- analogy, I would say, was when I did -- acted as the special master in the Agent Orange case involving Vietnam veterans who claimed injury from exposure to Agent Orange dioxin while serving in Vietnam. Judge Weinstein, eminent judge in Brooklyn had that case and appointed me. But even that didn‘t prepare me for this.
LAMB: What did you do on the Agent Orange case?
FEINBERG: In the Agent Orange case I first acted as a mediator to help resolve the dispute between a class of Vietnam veterans claiming injury and the chemical companies who manufactured the product.
Then after I settled -- helped settle that case under Judge Weinstein‘s auspices, we established a claims program to allocate the funds, $180 million, which grew to about $300 million over 10 years. And we allocated that and targeted that eligible veterans.
LAMB: Did you ever have a time in your 33 months where you said, I‘ve got to get out of this, this is driving me nuts?
FEINBERG: Never. There were some rough times, but…
LAMB: The roughest, what were they?
FEINBERG: Oh, at the beginning, the families. Never the American people. The American people, the politicians, the media, solidly behind this program. Even families from other terrorist attacks, who weren‘t eligible, like from Oklahoma City or from the first World Trade Center in ‘93, very supportive of the program.
The toughest part was convincing the 9/11 families themselves of the wisdom and the bona fides of the program. That was tough, especially the first year, so close to the 9/11 disaster itself.
LAMB: What would have happened -- we know how bad off the airlines are now, but what would have happened had this program not succeeded, to the airlines?
FEINBERG: I don‘t know. The airlines pushed this program as an alternative to litigation. The airlines were concerned that if thousands sued the airlines and the World Trade Center and MASSPORT and the Port Authority and Boeing and the security companies that this litigation would inhibit or undercut the willingness of anybody to fly. So they felt this was an important diversion out of the court system.
I think probably -- I‘m not sure how successful it was in preventing bankruptcy, the airlines seem to have enough difficulty, as you say, as it is. But that was the genesis of it.
LAMB: There are a number of names in your book I want to ask you about. Chuck Hagel, the senator from Nebraska, a Republican?
FEINBERG: Senator Hagel is the reason I really was appointed by the attorney general. As a former chief of staff to Senator Kennedy, I wasn‘t exactly the person who everybody would automatically assume would be assigned this task by the attorney general and the administration.
Chuck Hagel, who I‘ve known for -- since Agent Orange, for over 20 years, personally pushed at the White House and at the Department of Justice, claiming that I was the right man to do this.
LAMB: How did -- now you wanted this job, you say?
FEINBERG: Oh yes, I think millions of people would have wanted this job.
LAMB: Did many people apply for the job?
FEINBERG: I have no idea. To this day I don‘t know if the administration sought out others or offered it to others.
LAMB: What were you doing at the moment you decided you wanted the job?
FEINBERG: I was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and I read about the program as I was coming back on the train. And I said to myself, I think this is something that I want to do.
LAMB: Because you write about -- step back, where were you the moment of 9/11?
FEINBERG: Yes. At the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Also I had just come out of a class that I was teaching and up on the student union television I saw the first plane -- the results of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
And while I was in disbelief, saw the second plane hit. And then I headed back from Pennsylvania to Washington.
LAMB: Were you on the train when you headed back?
FEINBERG: I was on the train when the plane hit the Pentagon. And the train, Amtrak, stopped in Wilmington and announced that was it. I knew a couple of people on the train heading back to Washington. And we went outside, we negotiated with a cab driver to drive us the remaining hour-and-a-half. And we drove back together in the taxi.
LAMB: What did you talk about in that taxi ride?
FEINBERG: Just that this was something that it‘s just hard to believe, that it could happen in America. And disbelief, like everybody else. We just discussed about the -- how it could happen, the implications, was there more attacks that would be -- in the next few hours would we suffer more attacks?
I was worried about my two children at least. One was a student at NYU Law School, right down near the World Trade Center. Another was a student at Georgetown, across the river from the Pentagon.
So I worried about their safety, I was also not as concerned about my third, who was in undergraduate Middlebury, up in Vermont, rural area. But still, you worry about all of these family members.
LAMB: If we ask your kids today about your job for 33 months, what would they say?
FEINBERG: I don‘t know. I think they‘re very proud. I think they‘re very proud. I think that they were concerned about my physical and mental well-being doing this job. But I think they beam with pride that I did it and that I did it well.
LAMB: Now what‘s interesting…
FEINBERG: And my wife, who was a -- I don‘t want to leave her out, she was just incredibly supportive of the whole process.
LAMB: There wasn‘t a time when she said, Ken, or as some people call you, Kenny, it‘s time to get out of this?
FEINBERG: No. To the contrary, very, very supportive. My wife is -- was a stalwart in not only urging me to do it, but more than anybody, else sort of being there every night when I came home, at my side and reinforcing my resolve to get it done.
LAMB: You forget, until you read your book, that the time between September the 11th, 2001, and the time they decided to do this was minimal?
FEINBERG: Eleven days. That was the problem you see. The emotion of 9/11 was so pronounced, so recent, so real, that explaining to family members the wisdom of the program fell on deaf ears for a long time.
Mr. Feinberg, you‘re here offering money. They haven‘t even found my husband‘s body in that rubble and you‘re here like some lawyer with a valise and a check? How dare you.
And that pervasive obstacle to success, emotion, venting, ranting about the unfairness of life greatly inhibited my ability to succeed during the first 12 to 18 months of the program.
LAMB: Did you ever ask them why they were so strong in their reaction?
FEINBERG: Didn‘t have to. They offered. Either they were -- they flayed away at the failure of the government to protect their loved one. They, sobbing, would vent at the unfairness of life. Why my husband? Why my wife? Why my son and not him and not her?
Great concern expressed about how they‘re ever going to move on with the loss of a loved one who was the glue that kept the family together. So all of these, religious complaints. How could God ever allow this? I was the -- sort of the target for all of this emotional trauma.
LAMB: You say that two things in your past impacted how you went about your job. One, you came from a blue collar family, and your Jewish heritage. Explain that.
FEINBERG: I think that had -- obviously everybody is influenced by their heritage. In my case I think my respect for the underdog, my respect for those who were not at the pinnacle, but are trying to improve their lot, my respect for the vagaries, the uncertainties of life, part of my Jewish heritage.
I think all of that helped formulate sort of an approach that I took where the program couldn‘t have been more non-adversarial. I was a fiduciary for these families?
LAMB: What does that mean?
FEINBERG: I was really there as their supporter to help them, not to question, not to antagonize, not to undercut. To the contrary, I was there asking them, help me give you more of an award.
I have rules I have to follow, but I‘m here to really help. Over time, over the 33 months that I was the special master, I think that view became well-entrenched in the family‘s perspective about the program.
LAMB: Your blue collar background was what?
FEINBERG: My father had been a tire salesman -- a retail tire salesman in Brockton, Massachusetts, a blue collar town. And striving, everybody trying to improve their lot. He was the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe. And I just think that respect for the unfortunate, for the underdog I think had a lot to do with it.
LAMB: What about your mom?
FEINBERG: My mother the same, very loving, a homemaker, very loyal to her three children, my sister and my brother, and also eager to help the less fortunate.
LAMB: And explain more about the Jewish heritage. What is it about the Jewish world that you -- it‘s different than, say, other worlds?
FEINBERG: Well, I don‘t know how different. I mean, maybe all religions have similar characteristics, but certainly in my case I think a very healthy respect for the less fortunate, the minorities, those who are not mainstream.
Also part of my heritage I think, a recognition that there are no certainties in life. I think the Jewish heritage acknowledges that there are always situations you can‘t anticipate, that don‘t always assume -- where is it written that life is fair? Where is it written? It‘s not written that life is fair. It‘s not written that you automatically can control all aspects of your destiny.
And I think in the course of this program, if I ever learned anything that reinforced that, it was learning how one person survived and another didn‘t based on the most serendipitous reasons.
Mr. Feinberg, I would have been in that building, for the first time I wasn‘t there, I had to take my kid to the first grade, to school, otherwise I would have been in the building.
One family from a foreign country, the husband had never been in the United States ever. He flew in the night before, first time in the United States, first time in New York, first time at the restaurant on the 103rd floor. He died.
One family lost a loved one, they had escaped from Russia in the 1970s, had gone to Israel -- had emigrated to Israel. Decided that Israel was too dangerous a place because of Arab terrorism. Emigrated to the United States. He died in the World Trade Center.
So you become resigned to this. I mean, never assume that you control your destiny, you don‘t. I‘m much more fatalistic after 9/11, I must say. I don‘t think I‘ll ever plan more than two weeks ahead. I don‘t think I will.
LAMB: What did your wife think of that?
FEINBERG: I‘m not sure. I‘m not sure what she thinks of that. Life throws too many curveballs at you, I‘ve learned that from this fund.
LAMB: Talk about your own reaction to all this. What else has changed in your own head? I mean, has it really impacted you in other ways?
FEINBERG: Well, I think it has. I don‘t think how it couldn‘t. Professionally it certainly has. I‘m not as interested as I was before 9/11 in mediating and resolving major lucrative commercial disputes.
After doing the 9/11 fund I pick and choose my professional targets very carefully. I‘ve downsized my law firm. It was a larger firm, I‘ve cut it back to about seven to 10 people, one other lawyer, because I didn‘t want to do the same thing after 9/11.
LAMB: Have you changed your reading habits, your daily habits and how much time you spend on anything? Have you taken more time off, any of that?
FEINBERG: No. I‘m probably working harder than ever. As I‘ve said before, my love of classical music, opera, symphonic chamber works was a big help to me. I think I went to more concerts and listened to more classical music in the 33 months that I did this program than I ever thought I could.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in classical music?
FEINBERG: As a child, the cantor in my synagogue in Brockton, Massachusetts, was very knowledgeable and he sort of was my tutor and got me interested more and more as a child in classical music. And it just stayed with me and expanded.
LAMB: Go back to Chuck Hagel. Where did you first meet him? And how did you create -- how did get a friendship going after you had been for how long the chief of staff for Ted Kennedy?
FEINBERG: Chuck Hagel, before I -- this was after I had left Senator Kennedy, I had met Chuck in the context of the Vietnam veterans‘ settlement of Agent Orange, because he was a deputy at the Veterans Administration in Washington for a short time, and helped me tremendously in designing -- and helped Judge Weinstein in implementing the program, the settlement.
And then Chuck went home to Nebraska and decided to run for the Senate as an underdog, a big underdog. And I immediately got involved in his campaign, contributed to it financially, thought a great deal of Chuck.
And that really -- that friendship, beginning with Agent Orange right up until my days -- right up until 9/11, we stayed close.
LAMB: How did he then introduce you into the system?
FEINBERG: I think Senator Hagel just -- don‘t forget, the attorney general had been a senator before, Senator Ashcroft. And Chuck was a valuable member of Republicans in the Senate, a number of -- friends with the administration. And he really went and explained to them that based on my background, based on -- frankly, I think, based on my relationship with Senator Kennedy, that it would be good appointment.
And I interviewed twice with the attorney general, who was enormously helpful and supportive. I met with Mitch Daniels, who is now governor of Indiana, Republican, very, very supportive. And the president, extremely helpful, everybody. I couldn‘t have asked for more help.
LAMB: But you know, the image outside this city defies the image, that this is a town that‘s divided in confrontational and very partisan -- now are you still a Democrat?
FEINBERG: I‘m loyal to Senator Kennedy, let‘s say that. I will say this, if there was ever an example of a bipartisan bit of legislation, this is it. I had the support -- and this is why the program -- one reason the program was so effective, I didn‘t have any, any elected or appointed official nipping at my heels, criticizing. Everybody was solidly behind the program.
And that helped a great deal. When you have got everybody from the president, and Andy Card, who, on a number of occasions expressed great thanks for what we were trying to accomplish.
And you‘ve got Senator Kennedy and Senator Schumer and Senator Clinton and Congresswoman McCarthy and Rush Holt and others. All saying, keep up the good work, that helped a great deal.
LAMB: You did talk about Senator Schumer sidling up to you at one point and saying, can you get me some money from the ‘93 bombing of the World Trade Center? Now what kind of pressures like that did you have and how did you deal with them?
FEINBERG: Not much pressure. As I said earlier, I would have thought going in that the families who lost loved ones in the World Trade Center in ‘93, Oklahoma City, the African embassy bombings, the USS Cole, anthrax, I would have thought all of those people would have been demanding similar generosity on the part of the fund. No.
There were a couple, I would say a handful from Oklahoma City. One from Kenya. One, Senator Schumer, for the ‘93 World Trade Center. I think 9/11 was different. It was certainly different from the perspective of the American people, of that I have no doubt.
But I think most families, for whatever the reason, didn‘t come running to me asking for similar treatment. The public certainly was behind the program.
LAMB: Why shouldn‘t all of those have gotten the same kind of consideration as the 9/11 people?
FEINBERG: From the perspective of the victims, I don‘t see any distinction. If you try and justify my program on the basis of the victims lost, I can‘t convincingly explain why 9/11 yes, ‘93 World Trade Center no.
I think the only way you justify this program as a special carve-out is from the perspective of the nation, a recognition that 9/11 was, along with the American Civil War, Pearl Harbor, maybe the assassination of President Kennedy -- and 9/11, its impact on the American people was such that this was really a response from America to demonstrate the solidarity and cohesiveness of the American people towards these victims. That‘s the only way to explain this program I think convincingly.
LAMB: Go over the numbers again, how many human beings got money from the taxpayer?
FEINBERG: Fifty-three hundred. We got -- we received over 7,000 applications. About 2,000 were ineligible.
LAMB: For what reason?
FEINBERG: They weren‘t either -- they -- almost all of them claimed physical injury which we felt was not sufficiently related to 9/11, either geographically or circumstances.
LAMB: Any of those sue?
FEINBERG: Maybe, maybe some did. But 5,300 people received a check from the U.S. Treasury.
LAMB: For how much?
FEINBERG: Seven billion dollars.
LAMB: Was there a limit?
FEINBERG: No. There was no cap. Congress delegated to me all the discretion, practically unfettered to determine what appropriate awards should be.
LAMB: So you could have spent $25 billion?
FEINBERG: Well, I suppose technically I could have. If I had spent $25 billion I think I would have been fired and the bipartisan unanimity that blessed the program, there would have been bipartisan unanimity that Feinberg ought to be shipped to some foreign country.
I think -- I felt that there was some limit, based on my own judgment, not the legislation, that must be imposed in carving out such generosity for a very few people relative to the rest of the country. I didn‘t think it was appropriate to award double-digit millions to people, I didn‘t think it was right.
LAMB: When you got award, did you get it all in one lump sum?
FEINBERG: You could. You could get it in lump. We offered structured settlements over time. We offered to try and tailor any award to the financial plan submitted by the claimant. And we offered in every case free financial planning to any claimant, any family that wanted to take the benefit of that.
LAMB: The one that got the $8 million, for what reason, again, you said that…
FEINBERG: This was a burn survivor.
LAMB: How old was the woman?
FEINBERG: I really can‘t get into the details. If I give too -- it‘s very confidential. If I give any detail, it will be too easy to trace the awards.
LAMB: But you said she came to visit you.
FEINBERG: Oh, many…
LAMB: Is she out and about now? Is she living a decent life?
LAMB: Eighty-five percent of her body.
FEINBERG: Decent life? I mean…
LAMB: I mean -- I didn‘t mean it -- I mean, but she is…
FEINBERG: No, no.
LAMB: She is not confined to…
FEINBERG: She came to see me, let‘s put it that way. She came to see me, a very heroic woman, heroic. And came to see me with a courage determination to move forward in the most unbelievable circumstances. And very impressive. She received the highest award.
LAMB: And why the highest? What was the reason?
FEINBERG: The nature of her injuries, the suffering, ongoing suffering that she had confronted and would confront the rest of her life. The fact that she had a very high-paying job, don‘t forget, I was not permitted by this statute to give everybody the same amount.
I was obligated by statute to take into account the economic circumstances of each death and injury. It just so happened that this survivor had a very successful Wall Street profession. And that profession was the -- her 9/11 injuries, and I had to take that into account, which I did.
LAMB: You talk about one of the biggest problems you had, if I remember correctly, that in-laws and families and people who weren‘t directly affected, how much greed did you see?
FEINBERG: Very little greed. I think grief, not greed. But I must say, nowhere in this statute is there one word from Congress as to who should receive this money in the family, who should even file the claim on behalf of the family.
Congress completely ignored that who topic and left it to me to decide among competing family members who should get the money. And we had to design what I thought was a very fair way for determining among not only competing family members, fiancées, same-sex partners, all claiming some legitimate degree of credible demand for the compensation.
LAMB: Who was overlooking everything that you did?
FEINBERG: The attorney general of the United States.
LAMB: But actually who looked at it?
FEINBERG: A couple of the attorney general‘s designees: Jay Lefkowitz at OMB; Phil Perry, a deputy at the Department of Justice; Bob McCallum at the department; Peter Keisler. These were all people that worked very closely with who I think I formed lifelong friendships with as a result of their help in this project.
LAMB: You said in the book that you did not know who Phil Perry was before you hired him.
FEINBERG: I didn‘t realize he was the vice president‘s son-in-law until -- I didn‘t hire him, he was the designee that the attorney general urged to help me at the department. And I learned that later. Didn‘t matter one way or the other. But he was just fabulous.
LAMB: How often did you find a situation where -- and you write about it in your book, but where the -- after the deaths, the in-laws or the parents wouldn‘t talk to the spouse that‘s left, or even the person that was -- the fiancées in situations like that?
FEINBERG: Not often. It didn‘t happen that often. Most families worked out agreements in advance with fiancées or domestic partners or what have you. There were, qualitatively, however, some battle royales that I‘ll never forget.
Mr. Feinberg, I was the fiancée of the victim. We were going to be married on October 11th. I should be treated like a spouse when it comes to the award.
Biological parents, what do you say about that?
Oh, that marriage was never going to take place. My son called us on September 10th. He was having second thoughts.
Fiancée, what do you say to that?
Is that right, Mr. Feinberg? Look, here‘s a copy of the wedding invitation. We were going to be married. On August 11th, those parents, they threw a shower for me and said, we‘re not losing a son, we‘re gaining a daughter. How dare them now, post-9/11, deny the inevitability of the marriage.
There were a few like that, and I worked out most of those disagreements, not all, but most.
LAMB: What kind of records did you keep about all your conversations?
FEINBERG: We probably kept as complete a file on every claim on every family on every conversation, all confidential, maybe someday it will be made available. It‘s a tremendous amount of raw data. But we felt an obligation, it‘s the taxpayers‘ money and it‘s a lot of taxpayer‘s money. We felt an obligation to keep very stringent records.
LAMB: Where are those records kept?
FEINBERG: Filed in the U.S. Government Archives.
LAMB: And in your opinion should they ever be made public?
FEINBERG: Oh, maybe some day after the families are dead and time has passed, maybe they should be made public, but not while people are alive, trying to move on.
LAMB: Did you keep a diary?
FEINBERG: I didn‘t keep a diary but I kept, at least not a rigid day-by-day diary, I did keep notes, especially of the individual meetings because I needed to go back and review my notes in deciding in meeting with the families individually whether to raise the awards or not. And notes that I had scribbled and kept proved very valuable to me.
LAMB: You imply that you got off to a rough start with these families.
FEINBERG: I don‘t know about imply, it was pretty rough -- it‘s expressed. It was very rough.
LAMB: And then give us an example of roughness.
FEINBERG: Oh, the very first meeting with firefighter widows in Manhattan, the very first meeting within a month after 9/11, two months. A lady stood up and said: Mr. Feinberg, you‘re giving firefighter widows, based on your formulas that you‘ve announced, a million dollars less than the widow of an accountant on the 103rd floor who represented Enron. I spit on you and your children, Mr. Feinberg, I spit on you.
That was an example of the invective at the beginning, very emotional on the part of many, many families.
LAMB: What did you do?
FEINBERG: I listened. I responded as calmly and as best as I could. There is absolutely no point in engaging people in anger or disrespect.
LAMB: You said you changed your tactics.
FEINBERG: Well, as time went on, I became, I think, less of a lawyer and more of a family counselor, less the technicalities of the program and more empathy in trying as best I could to deal with the emotion, the raw emotion arising out of 9/11.
And I think that was one factor that helped turn the program around towards success. Time certainly helped. A statutory deadline to file a claim certainly helped. But I think all of this together ended up helping the program succeed.
LAMB: Were there any restrictions on your staff about writing this story like you‘ve written in the book? In other words, all these raw emotions would lead to quite a narrative.
FEINBERG: Oh, there is tremendous restriction. It‘s all prohibited by law. You can‘t disclose in a book any of this. The reason I was able to write this book, as I say in the preface, is because, with the help of the Department of Justice, I felt it important that this book be written for future generations.
I -- the department went out and formally, in writing, sought and received written waiver requests from over 60 families, in which they formally gave their permission to quote without attribution from their hearings and from their personal family circumstances. Otherwise, none of this could have been printed.
LAMB: Were the town meetings open to the public?
LAMB: Open to the media?
FEINBERG: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: Was that the way you wanted it? Or was that fair? Would it…
FEINBERG: Oh, I think it was fair. This is taxpayer money. This is a government program. I didn‘t think it appropriate to close off community town hall meetings to the public or to the press.
If a particular family wanted to meet with me privately to discuss the personal, confidential concerns they confronted, that was closed to the public, that was closed to everybody other than those invited by that family.
And that was the way we sort of balanced the public‘s right to know with private, confidential family circumstances.
LAMB: Now when they met with you privately, did you have a good cop/bad cop routine and all that you did with staff people?
FEINBERG: No routine.
LAMB: I didn‘t mean the word “routine“ as much as did you ever -- did you have a protection in the event that somebody lost control?
FEINBERG: Plenty of people lost control. And the way we handled it is if I anticipated lost control, I would adjourn the hearing for a while. If I thought that a family was going off on a irrelevant track, I would try and bring the family back to the issues at hand.
I occasionally needed an adjournment, for me to clear my head and walk around the block, because some of these -- many -- most of these individual family meetings were chilling.
LAMB: Did you ever break down yourself in one of these meetings?
FEINBERG: Not in a meeting, but I broke down sometimes, but not in a meeting.
LAMB: Go back to the legislation. Who was responsible for writing the legislation within that very short period of time after September the 11th?
FEINBERG: The bulk of the legislation dealing with airline stabilization and airline protection was written by the Senate and the House with input from the airlines. They were all over the Hill, the airline lawyers and lobbyists seeking loan guarantees and financial protection.
As that legislation moved forward very quickly, the American Association of Trial Lawyers, Leo Boyle, Larry Stewart, Richard Bieder, and their Washington office, felt that it was very important that if the airlines are going to be immunized from suit, or that obstacles were going to be raised to prevent effective lawsuits, there has to be something done for the victims.
And they went and saw Congressman Gephardt, Senator Schumer, Senator Daschle, and out of that came a hybrid statute: airline protection, minimize lawsuits, victims‘ compensation. And it sort of came together in a unified, bipartisan way.
LAMB: You served up there for five years with Senator Kennedy.
LAMB: And some who were behind the scenes, somebody actually had to write this stuff.
FEINBERG: I think that it was written -- if you said, who scrivened, who are the scriveners? Who actually drafted the victim compensation? I think it was the staff of Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt with input from the trial lawyers.
LAMB: And were the Democrats in control of Congress at the time?
FEINBERG: I don‘t believe so.
LAMB: Why would the Republicans allow that happen?
FEINBERG: I think it was not a political issue. I continue to believe that as a result of 9/11, the country as a whole, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, felt that this idea of a compensation program to help these people, and at the same time demonstrate the country‘s solidarity in the wake of the foreign attack, had a lot to do with the bipartisan support leading up to this program.
Jack Rosenthal of The New York Times Foundation has coined a phrase which I love: “vengeful philanthropy.“ That‘s what this was about. We‘ll show those terrorists and those countries harboring terrorists what America is all about. And this was the result.
LAMB: Go back to your “life is unfair.“ John Kennedy said that years ago, life is unfair and you‘re talking about fairness. You can just hear people listening to this conversation -- this is maybe a stretch, but you drive on the interstate highway, we pay federal -- we pay tax on that and we pay for protection. And I don‘t know what the figure is now, 40,000-some people killed every year on the highways, but if they‘re killed on the federal interstate highway system, why shouldn‘t they have compensation?
FEINBERG: That‘s not the American way. Forget this legislation for a minute. The American character, self -- as I say in the book, self-reliance, choices made and not made, a resignation in confronting life‘s unfairness, individual dignity and individual integrity, the American people -- the heritage of the American people is not the government as a guarantor of all of life‘s misfortunes.
This is an aberration, this program that I administered. It‘s uniqueness is that it runs so counter to the way -- at least in its generosity, certainly, so counter to the way that Americans confront curveballs that I don‘t think there are many people who would say actually that when you‘re injured or killed on a federal highway, the government should cut you a check for $2 million.
To the contrary, most of the American people would say that the 9/11 fund, to the extent that it was a good idea, and I think -- I say in the book it was a great idea, don‘t do it again. It is an aberration, it is unique, and I think they‘re probably right about that.
LAMB: Even if there is another terrorist attack?
FEINBERG: I don‘t think Congress will do this again.
LAMB: Why not?
FEINBERG: I think Congress will view this as a response to a very unique historical disaster like Pearl Harbor. The next time it happens, God forbid, I‘m dubious that -- I saw this in the book, I‘m dubious that Congress will replicate the program.
And if it does, I suggest Congress will probably -- if it does anything, will probably give everybody the same amount and not ask one person to say, you get $3 million, you get $2 million, you get $4 million. I don‘t think they will ever do that again.
LAMB: What did you do about the difference in the suffering that each person had to endure?
FEINBERG: I concluded at the beginning that when 9/11 families came to me and said: my wife endured more suffering in the World Trade Center than somebody else, she called me on the cell phone and told me she was going to die, so I‘m entitled to more money than the person killed instantly; I rejected that.
I said, I am not Solomon. I can‘t make distinctions on the basis of who suffered more or less. We will have one-size-fits-all. Everybody gets the same for suffering: $250,000 for the death of the victim; $100,000 in additional for each surviving spouse and dependent, that‘s it. Don‘t come to me and argue for more money for suffering and emotional distress.
LAMB: Brockton, Mass., for how many years?
FEINBERG: I lived in Brockton, Mass., until I graduated high school, the first 18 years of my life, then I went to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for another four. So it wasn‘t until I was 23 that left Massachusetts to go to law school and move on.
LAMB: You went to New York University Law?
FEINBERG: NYU Law School.
LAMB: Why did you want to become a lawyer? And why did you make the comment earlier, you stopped thinking like lawyer and thought like a person that had to deal with emotion?
FEINBERG: I was thinking about becoming an actor. I had done a lot of acting in high school and college. But my father gave me some very sound advice. He said, you know, most actors end up waiting on tables in New York City. Why don‘t you become a lawyer instead and put your acting talents to use in the courtroom perhaps? And I followed my father‘s advice.
But I found in administering this program that lawyer skills in analysis, technical understanding of loss and economics and calculations, proved much less valuable than psychiatry and philosophy and counseling. Empathy, much more valuable in assuring the success of the program.
LAMB: What year did you get out of New York University Law School?
FEINBERG: I graduated NYU in 1970.
LAMB: What did you do then?
FEINBERG: Then I was a law clerk to the chief judge of New York for two years, eminent jurist, Stanley Fuld. And then after that I went to work as a prosecutor in New York, and then to work for Senator Kennedy.
LAMB: And you were there in what years?
FEINBERG: I was with Senator Kennedy from 1975 through 1980 when I left him to go into private practice.
LAMB: How long were you in private practice?
FEINBERG: I‘ve been private practice on and off from 1980 to the present.
LAMB: How much of your ability to pull this job off is due to your personality? And I‘ll say a couple of things, you‘re very distinct. You have the Boston accent. You‘re very pronounced. I mean, there‘s no sense that you don‘t -- you know, what you say is quite strong. How much of that played when you had to sit down with these families who were either looking for more money or looking for sympathy?
FEINBERG: I think personality was a great benefit and a great hindrance in this. It was a hindrance at the beginning, this personality of this is the way the program is written and this is the way it‘s going to be done and this is what we can do and what we can‘t do.
A lawyerly assuredness rubbed many of these families the wrong way. Over time I think the personality modification, the willingness to help, the willingness to try and deal with the unique problems that each family brought me as sort of a counselor, not as a lawyer, I think my personality ultimately proved helpful in galvanizing support for the program.
LAMB: There was one -- in the back you have a lot of accounting numbers and all that stuff. There was one line I wanted to ask you about and this off-topic. Aspen, $3 million?
FEINBERG: The Aspen company was the communications arm of Pricewaterhouse that reached out, 1-800 numbers, mailings, over 33 months, helping to staff local offices and phones. It is a company that is in the business of helping communicate with large numbers of eligible claimants.
LAMB: If you were to do this again, that‘s probably a big if, what would you change?
FEINBERG: Everybody should get the same amount of money. If I was -- as I say in the book, if I were advising Congress: one, don‘t do it again, it was a unique response. But if you decide to do it again, I think that you would be well-advised, Congress, to provide, as the law does today in some other respects, a flat amount for every eligible claimant without variation.
LAMB: The name of the book is “What Is Life Worth?“ and our guest has been Kenneth R. Feinberg. Thank you very much for joining us.
FEINBERG: Thank you very much.