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Friday, February 1, 2002

Making Terrorists Pay

Terrorism Victims Should Pursue Perpetrators' Assets

If there is one lesson the United States must teach after the September 11 atrocities, it is that terrorism does not pay. Washington should allow, indeed encourage, victims of terrorism to go after the assets of the perpetrators.

A pregnant widow of one of the victims of the World Trade Center attack was the first to file suit against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Washington froze $254 million in Taliban assets in 1999. But in the past the State Department has opposed making foreign governments pay for their actions. So Representative Chris Cannon introduced legislation to open foreign assets to U.S. judgments.

As he explained, “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, preferring to use the cash as a bargaining chip, pressured Congress to drop Cannon’s amendment from last fall’s anti-terrorism bill. So he introduced it as a separate piece of legislation.

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; 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. Explained then-Senator Frank Lautenberg, “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.”

Because of State Department opposition, sponsors were forced to create a two-tier system, with some victims receiving mandatory payouts and others left reliant on the goodwill 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. They were awarded almost $19 million in federal court in 2001.

Last fall, 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. Also waiting is the family of Charles Hegna, which won a default ruling against Iran for its support of Hizbollah 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 fighting terrorism is a complicated business.

Anyway, the 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.

The administration should announce that, absent overwhelming national security justification, it will not block any court award to any victim of terrorism, past or future. If the State Department continues to stonewall, Congress should mandate payment of such claims.

Needless to say, the principle of compensation cuts both ways: innocent foreigners harmed by the U.S. government should also be able to pursue legal claims.

Don’t Penalize Americans

At the same time, it is important not to penalize American citizens for the crimes of terrorists. In particular, fundamental liberties should not be wantonly sacrificed, since they are what make this nation unique and so great. Government needs power to fight enemies of America, but that power must remain constrained, since it is easily abused by even the best-intentioned.

Standing up for America requires a willingness to tolerate the risks that inevitably face a free and open society. To close off America from the world or abandon the liberties enjoyed by American citizens would result in an enormous victory for terrorists.

Equally important, the U.S. military must focus more on real threats to America, which today emanate less from traditional ideologies like communism and more from developing theologies like radical Islam. That means more resources devoted to traditional defenses at home and unconventional capabilities abroad.

But such an effort does not require a military buildup. To the contrary, spending can shrink as resources are better deployed. What is needed is not a new Office of Homeland Security, but a Defense Department that focuses on protecting the American homeland. For instance, fighters are not needed to guard Europe from the nonexistent Red Air Force; they are needed to police America’s own airspace.

The silliest proposal of all is to restart conscription. Stanley Kurtz of the Hudson Institute worries that “there may be no other way out.” But over the last three decades the United States faced the Soviets, won the Gulf War, blasted Serbia, and invaded or deployed to a host of small states. All with a volunteer military.

And unless one plans on attacking–and occupying, for years–Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria simultaneously, today’s force is far more than sufficient. Indeed, the volunteer military is better trained and motivated than any draft force, which is why the Pentagon has no interest in returning to the agonies of conscription. In any case, it would take months to turn raw draftees into soldiers.

More important, focus groups suggest that many potential recruits want to protect America, not engage in global social engineering. Forces to protect against terrorism could be freed up if the U.S. government were no longer defending prosperous and populous allies that face no serious security threats and policing civil wars that are irrelevant to our security.

Finally, it is important to forge cooperative international relationships to destroy small, shadowy terrorist networks that span the globe and to deny terrorists sanctuary.

At the same time, the United States must beware becoming ensnared in the volatile political problems of other states. Unfortunately, Washington has long seemed oblivious to how easy it is to make enemies, and how well able they are to cause grievous harm. The U.S. government must not create new terrorists while attempting to eliminate old ones.

Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.