- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

If there is one lesson the United States must teach after the September 11 atrocity, it is that terrorism does not pay. The administration would send this message by capturing or killing Osama bin Laden and other members of his terrorist network and by overthrowing the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Washington should also allow, indeed encourage, victims of terrorism to go after the assets of terrorists.

A pregnant widow of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack filed the first suit against bin Laden and the Taliban. The group Judicial Watch recently filed a suit by a man widowed in the same assault. The $254 million of Taliban assets frozen in 1999 would provide a fair start to compensating victims of September 11.

The administration has yet to react to the suits. But why should the U.S. government pay when money is available from the perpetrators?

In the past, however, the State Department has opposed making foreign governments pay for their actions. So Rep. Chris Cannon has introduced legislation to open foreign assets to U.S. judgments.

As he explains, "If people go to court and can get a judgment that their family member died because of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, then they should be able to collect from money we have frozen." But the State Department prefers to use the cash as a bargaining chip, and successfully pressured Congress to drop his amendment from the pending anti-terrorism bill. He is now introducing it as a separate piece of legislation.

Mr. Cannon's bill is important not just for those murdered on September 11, but for past victims of terrorism. For instance, in 1999 Congress sought to make it easier for the victims of terrorism to collect from irresponsible governments, but the Clinton administration immediately issued a national security waiver. That led to expanded pressure from Capitol Hill and intricate negotiations with the administration, and ultimately passage of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which narrowed the president's authority. "It is our intention that the president will consider each case on its own merits; this waiver should not be applied in a routine or blanket manner," said Sen. Frank Lautenberg.

Due to State Department opposition, sponsors were forced to create a two-tier system, with some victims receiving mandatory payouts and others left reliant on the good will of federal bureaucrats. As a result, $97 million in Cuban government money was used to compensate the families of anti-Castro activists whose planes were shot down by Havana in 1996.

Still waiting for their money, however, are William Barloon, Kenneth Beaty, David Daliberti and Clinton Hall, all of whom spent various time in Iraqi prisons either after being kidnapped by Iraqi border guards or having mistakenly crossed the border as pawns in Saddam Hussein's extended campaign to lift Western economic sanctions. They were awarded almost $19 million in federal court earlier this year. More recently, Jack Frazier won a default verdict against Iraq for holding him, along with more than 50 other Americans, as human shields in the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait during the Gulf War. A damage award is due soon from the judge.

Also waiting is the family of Charles Hegna, which just won a default ruling against Iran for its support of Hezbollah terrorists, who murdered him after hijacking his Kuwait Airlines flight. Similar verdicts have been rendered against Iran for backing the group Hamas, which killed Leah Stern and Ira Weinstein in terror bombings in Israel. No doubt, opening up the assets of foreign states to seizure would complicate the State Department's job. But, as is all too evident today, fighting terrorism is a complicated business.

Anyway, the State Department has used frozen funds to pay compensation to large corporations, such as AT&T, for their foreign claims. Apparently Iraqi money has been used even to pay China for its "expenses" caused by the downing of the U.S. spy plane. Moreover, the Cannon legislation would limit pay-outs to compensatory damages. There would be no runaway punitive awards to punish foreign states, no matter how much they deserve it: that job would be left to the U.S. government. Compensating victims of terrorism would not become another vehicle to enrich trial lawyers.

The administration acknowledges that we are only at the beginning of a long process of fighting terrorism. It should announce that, absent overwhelming national security justification, it will not block any court award to any victim of terrorism, past or future. Should the State Department continue to stonewall, Congress should mandate payment of such claims. Terrorism must not pay. One of the best ways to teach that lesson is to make terrorists compensate their victims.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and former special assistant to President Reagan.

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