A Senate committee is considering a proposal to change the way U.S. victims of international terrorism are compensated in a way supporters say will be more fair. But opponents argue it would allow terrorists to escape the costs of their actions.
William H. Taft,the legal adviser for the State Department,testified Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in support of the legislation.
He said previous and current laws have been inadequate because they have not provided equal compensation to all victims of terrorism. In addition,Taft said,when victims sue foreign countries through U.S. courts,there are rarely enough of those countries’ assets in the United States to provide just compensation.
Sen. Richard G. Lugar,R-Ind.,the committee chairman,sought support for legislation that would provide compensation to U.S. victims of international terrorism from U.S. taxpayers' dollars rather than from impounded assets owned by state sponsors of those terrorist acts.
Lugar,the only member of the committee present for the hearing,said American victims of terrorist acts should be guaranteed a level of compensation that cannot be provided solely through foreign assets in an age of rogue nations and terrorist cells.
“It appears to me that,if hijackers are an example,we may be facing individuals that are not attached to a nation state,” Lugar said. “There ought to be some relief for victims that is fairly certain. In one way or another,it will be paid for by the American taxpayer.”
The proposed legislation would not provide compensation for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks because they are eligible to collect under the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001.
Under the legislation,the secretary of state would determine if an act of terrorism had occurred and whether an individual is eligible for compensation.
Allan Gerson,a lawyer who represents 4,000 families of Sept. 11 victims and who sued Libya after the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie,Scotland,strongly objected to the proposal.
Gerson called the legislation a “setback in the war against terrorism” and a “compromise with terrorism.” Gerson said that the bill would put blocked or frozen assets off limits to victims of terrorism.
“It purports to provide the families of victims with additional rights when it,in fact,deprives them of their hard-won rights,” Gerson said.
As the bill is drafted,he said,”The American taxpayer would pay the victims of terrorism. The result is the best of all possible worlds for terrorists themselves. They can victimize at will,secure in the knowledge that it is the U.S. Treasury,not their assets,that would be called upon to pay the price. The result is cost-free terrorism.”
Taft cited the 52 former Iranian hostages,who were freed in 1981 after 444 days in captivity,as an example of shortcomings in the system.
Some are still seeking part of the $23 million in Iranian assets that are frozen in this country. Taft said it amounted to “very little money or property available to satisfy these judgments against Iran.”
Taft said that the current system — in which the United States awarded $368 million in U.S. and Iranian funds to 14 victims — is too costly to taxpayers.
“Other plaintiffs with judgments against Iran,as well as plaintiffs with judgments against other state sponsors of terrorism,however,received no payments,” Taft said.
In addition,Taft said the U.S. government blocks foreign assets in the interest of the country as a whole.
“Using those assets to pay court judgments undermines the president's ability to use them in the broader interest of the nation,” Taft said. “For example,blocked Iraqi assets were needed this year for the people of Iraq and to support reconstruction efforts,… just as blocked Iranian assets were held as critical leverage in 1981 to secure the release of the hostages.”
Stuart E. Eizenstat,who worked in the Carter and Clinton administrations and dealt with compensation issues,said if all of the blocked assets during the Iranian hostage crisis had been consumed in private lawsuits,the president would not have had the bargaining ability to get the U.S. hostages out of Iran. He said he supports the intent of the bill.
After the hearing,Lugar said it was “our timely attempt in the midst of other things like Iraq to seize the moment to make sure we had a proper airing of important views.”
Lugar,who described the bill as a “vehicle to discuss issues,” said it may be rolled into another bill but that he would prefer to continue to discuss it separately.