Joel Mowbray
“It would be an obstruction of justice for us to get involved.” That was State Department spokesman Gregory Sullivan last summer, discussing the $1 trillion lawsuit filed by the families of 9/11 victims against the Saudi royal family. What a difference a few months of Saudi “diplomacy” makes: State is now poised to seek dismissal of the families’ quest for justice. State has decided to stick up for the Saudis--against the most sympathetic of plaintiffs--because the lawsuit would be bad for “bilateral relations,” according to a senior State Department official. The current posture, however, simply maintains State’s opposition to the efforts of terrorism victims and their families. Just ask the families who have been battling State for years--while the department protects its cache of frozen assets belonging to Saddam Hussein, the Iranian mullahs, and Muammar Quadafi. Lawsuits in response to terrorism have been brought for years, but the legal hurdles were often difficult to clear. Families of victims of Iraqi, Iranian, and Libyan terrorism (and the few lucky people who actually survived) spent much of the ’80s and ’90s in a fruitless pursuit of justice, until Congress finally opened the courtroom door. The victims’ families--because of Congress’ help--started winning default judgments against the likes of Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein back in 1997. But when they went to collect on their judgments--by tapping the frozen assets of despotic dictators--State decided to fight the families. Since tyrants who sponsor terrorism tend not to respect the findings of American courts, the frozen assets are only chance the families have to collect on the court judgments. The “compromise” position offered by State is that the families be compensated by the U.S. government, not by the regimes responsible for the terrorist attacks. Why is State so desperate to hoard the frozen assets all for itself? In a letter to the Senate last December, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage wrote, “There is no better example [of protecting national security] than the critical role blocked assets played in obtaining the release of the U.S. hostages in Tehran in 1981.” In other words, Armitage believes that State needs frozen funds to give back to the tyrants in question if they are smart enough to kidnap American citizens and demand ransom payments. Even though the families of terrorism victims have had an extremely difficult time collecting from frozen assets, it seems that just about no one else has. The Chinese foolishly sold dual-use telecommunications equipment to Iraq--foolish because Hussein never bothered to pay them. But Communist China did not suffer; State forked over $80 million in Iraqi assets to Beijing. Blocked Iranian money has also mysteriously disappeared, and none of it went to the families of terrorism victims. According to annual reports from the Treasury Department, the total amount of blocked Iranian assets held in the United States dwindled from approximately $350 million at the end of 2000 to about $200 million one year later. Cuba’s diminishing blocked assets, however, can be traced--right back to Castro. Over $100 million of Cuban blocked assets each year is paid out to phone companies, such as AT&T and WorldCom, for phone service (encouraging Cubans to call their relatives in the U.S.)--more than $50 million of which then goes right into Castro’s pocket, so that he’ll allow phone service to continue. Given State’s track record, the families of 9/11 victims face formidable odds in going after the Saudi royal family--even though there are no blocked assets involved, since Saudi Arabia is not technically a state sponsor of terrorism. In this case, State is likely to try to sabotage the case from the sidelines. The probable game plan is not to get directly involved and to wait for the court to ask for State’s opinion--an opinion that would advise the court to dismiss the lawsuit. Top State press flak Richard Boucher hinted at the department’s strategy for torpedoing the Saudi lawsuit when he said, “Sometimes courts ask us for things, and obviously we would respond to the wishes of the court [to give our opinion].” If only State would respond to the wishes of American citizens victimized by terrorism.

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mowbray, who got his start with Townhall.com, is an award-winning investigative journalist, nationally-syndicated columnist and author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America's Security.

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