The administration has come to regret those few presidential words, which have touched off a storm of controversy among a growing number of victims of state-sponsored terrorism who have won court awards for damages but can't collect them.
That includes a $187.6 million judgment against Cuba in December 1997 that a federal judge in Miami awarded the families of victims of the shootdown over the Florida Straits.
Despite Clinton's words, the State Department has opposed all efforts to seize frozen assets of Cuba or any other country saying it could backfire and result in seizure of U.S. diplomatic properties aboard.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's recent announcement that she would explore other ways to help collect such judgments gave new hope to some victims and their families. But others remain bitter or, at least, skeptical.
In a Senate speech marking the fourth anniversary of the Cuban incident, Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., cited "another year passed without closure." In refusing to help the families, the administration created "a great injustice," Mack said.
Mack and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., are sponsoring a bill to set up a mechanism for collecting blocked assets. The administration opposes it.
However, the bill has won the support of other victims of terrorism.
"It is designed to make terrorism expensive," said former hostage Terry Anderson, awaiting a federal judge's assessment of damages in his $100 million lawsuit against Iran.
The former Associated Press correspondent has also met with administration officials in an effort to build support for some kind of collection mechanism.
"I don't expect Iran to be cutting us a check any time soon," said Anderson attorney Stuart Newberger.
Anderson, whose nearly seven years in captivity in Lebanon made him the longest-held American hostage, claims Iran sponsored his 1985 kidnapping. Three fellow hostages, Joseph Cicippio, Frank Reed and David Jacobsen, have already won a $65 million judgment against Iran.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson declared Iran in default when it didn't send a representative to Anderson's lawsuit trial earlier this month.
When Clinton made his blocked-asset request, Congress already was working on a bill to permit victims of state-sponsored terrorism to sue in U.S. courts, legislation sought by families of victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing. Congress acted quickly and Clinton signed the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 at a South Lawn ceremony.
But with multimillion-dollar judgments piling up, not a cent has yet been collected.
The administration became particularly alarmed when the family of Alisa Flatow an American college student killed in a 1995 bombing in Israel sought a court order to seize the former Iranian Embassy and other former diplomatic properties to satisfy a $247 million judgment they won against Iran.
"The families of these victims are still fighting the U.S. government in trying to execute these judgments, which creates an intense amount of confusion and frustration among family members," said Mark Zaid, an attorney for the Pan Am 103 families in a $20 billion damage suit still being fought by Libya.
With Iran, there are hundreds of millions of dollars of frozen non-diplomatic assets, the former hostages contend, including former commercial properties and money from U.S. arms bought by Iran but never delivered.
The administration has been talking to Anderson and other representatives of the Lebanon hostages about tapping into these accounts. But tapping into frozen assets from Cuba or Libya is more complicated.
Ronald Kleinman, a lawyer for the Florida families, said no one from the administration has offered to sit down with his clients to talk about frozen Cuban assets.
The administration "helped us until we got the judgment," Kleinman said.
"People need to be able to put the past behind them and move on," Mack said.
But he said so long as families like those in Miami are unable to collect on judgments, that will be difficult.
EDITOR'S NOTE Tom Raum covers national and international affairs for The Associated Press.
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press