"This city needs another committee like a moose needs a hat rack," said Stephen Flatow of West Orange, N.J. He is trying to collect on a $247.5 million judgment against Iran for the 1995 death of his daughter, Alisa, a student who was killed when her bus was blown up while riding in the Gaza Strip.
Flatow and his family sued Iran under a 1996 law that allows Americans to seek damages for terrorist acts by nations that sponsor international terror.
Under the same anti-terrorism law, three families sued Cuba for killing members of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue. Their two unarmed planes were shot down on Feb. 24, 1996, while patrolling the waters off South Florida in search of Cubans fleeing their homeland. They won a judgment of $187 million.
After winning in court, the survivors tried to collect on their judgments by seizing assets of Iran and Cuba frozen by the United States.
But citing national security concerns, President Clinton last year invoked a waiver blocking the families from collecting their judgments from frozen assets.
Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Connie Mack, R-Fla., responded this week by introducing legislation that would limit the scope of the president's waiver, allowing the White House to protect only certain diplomatic properties from seizure and sale.
At a hearing Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart E. Eizenstat called the legislation "fundamentally flawed."
Unfreezing assets to satisfy judgments, he said, would weaken U.S. diplomatic leverage over terrorist nations, place U.S. diplomatic properties around the world at risk of retaliation and create a "winner-take-all race to the courthouse" that will benefit only those filing the earliest lawsuits against a given terrorist nation.
The two senators who showed up for the hearing, Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, supported the families and endorsed the Lautenberg-Mack legislation.
Kyl pressed Eizenstat to square the administration's current position with a Clinton statement from 1996. Addressing reporters after the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown, Clinton urged Congress to "pass legislation that would provide immediate compensation to the families, something to which they are entitled under international law, out of Cuba's blocked assets here in the United States."
Kyl asked Eizenstat, "Are you telling us he wasn't sincere or he hadn't checked with you lawyers first?"
Eizenstat replied that Clinton was sincere but did not envision the legislation that Congress ultimately passed.
Clinton at the time also dipped into frozen Cuban assets to free up $300,000 for each family of a Brothers to the Rescue victim. Eizenstat called that "a one-time humanitarian gesture" not intended as a precedent.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press