By Devlin Barrett
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has finished screening 60,000 Ground Zero responders and others after a Florida congressman insisted they be checked against a terrorist watch list before receiving aid from a Sept. 11 program.
Investigators did not find any suspected terrorists in the group, people familiar with the work said.
The requirement was included in legislation passed by Congress last year that re-opened a compensation fund and extended a health-treatment program for those sickened by exposure to Ground Zero.
That condition, pushed by Rep. Cliff Stearns (R., Fla.), angered New York lawmakers, who called it an insult to those who toiled on the toxic debris left by the destruction of the World Trade Center.
"It was shameful, and it put a cloud over extraordinarily good people for no reason,'' said Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.). That none of the people was found to have been on the watch list "shows what a waste of time this was from the beginning," he said.
The FBI's Terrorist Screening Center completed the bulk of the name-check work in late June, people familiar with the matter said, but it is not completely finished.
Every month, more people become eligible for benefits by enrolling in Sept. 11 health programs, and the FBI will also check those new additions.
"Did anyone really think the heroes of 9/11 were terrorists? It's absurd,'' said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, whose Manhattan district includes the World Trade Center site. "It was a waste of money, especially because it wasn't a simple thing to do, because you had to do the checks without violating the privacy of the first responders," he said.
The total cost of the background checks was not available.
Mr. Stearns said in a statement that his amendment was necessary because several thousand non-first responders will be eligible for health-care benefits under the legislation, "including passersby and those who were near Ground Zero several months afterwards.''
He added: "I am encouraged that so far there have been no matches to the watch list.''
When Mr. Stearns first put forward the measure in a House committee, there was little resistance, and the Democratic chairman at the time, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, said he thought it made "a lot of sense.''
Overall, the legislation passed in late 2010 provides $2.8 billion in compensation payments to those who have illnesses linked to their exposure to the dust and debris of the World Trade Center site.
The law provides another $1.5 billion in health care for those who need treatment and monitoring.
The compensation fund has just begun its work and plans to begin accepting applications later this year. The new fund will make payments to those afflicted with a variety of long-term health problems, such as breathing disorders and gastrointestinal disease.
But the fund as it stands now would not pay compensation for cancer because last month a federal official overseeing Sept. 11-related health treatments concluded there is not enough proof of a link between Ground Zero exposure and cancer.
Advocates hope that the government's cancer decision will change once more research is published.