* If evidence of hacking, charges could be brought
* No timeline for preliminary probe into hacking report
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday met family members of those killed during the Sept. 11 attacks but offered no details about a probe of whether reporters for News Corp (NWSA.O) tried to hack the victims’ phones.
The Justice Department has been looking into an unconfirmed report by Britain’s Daily Mirror newspaper that reporters at the rival News of the World had offered to pay a New York police officer for private phone records of some victims of the 2001 attacks.
During a 75-minute meeting with Holder, Justice Department officials and FBI representatives, family members said the attorney general called the probe a “preliminary investigation” and that the allegations were “disturbing.”
A Justice Department official confirmed those remarks and said the department was taking the investigation seriously.
“They wouldn’t say anything, they were very, very cautious” in speaking, because it is rare the government acknowledges an open investigation, said Maureen Santora, whose son was a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center.
The family members and their lawyer said Holder told them that the Daily Mirror report was sufficient to warrant opening a preliminary investigation and that even attempts to access the phone accounts of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks could prompt federal charges.
Holder tried to reassure them that they were taking the investigation seriously and that if there was evidence of even attempted hacking, they would try to prosecute those responsible, they said.
“I was heartened by what he had to say,” said Diane Horning, whose son worked and died at the World Trade Center. She said she was pleased that the officials told them that “if someone tried to hack into a system but was unsuccessful, those people will still be held accountable.”
However, a lawyer for the families acknowledged that there could be problems bringing charges because so much time has passed since then.
“There is already even as we stand here today, there would be a concern about the statute of limitations on the criminal federal statutes depending on when and if the hacking did occur,” said Norman Siegel, the family members’ lawyer.
The Mirror report, citing an unidentified source, has yet to be independently verified. A phone hacking scandal in Europe has rocked Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp media empire. The News of the World paper was shuttered.
During an inquiry by members of Britain’s Parliament in London last month, Murdoch said there was nothing to suggest his reporters had hacked the phones of Sept. 11 victims.
At the families’ request, Holder agreed to meet with them to discuss the allegations, which have not been confirmed.
Family members said they offered the phone numbers of their relatives who died in the attacks but the government officials indicated to them that they had other ways to determine whether there had been any attempts or actual hacking.
Holder and the other officials in the meeting offered no timeline for the investigation, family members said. (Editing by Eric Beech)