Two Damage Awards, Two Different Bush Administration Positions

by Kevin Jon Heller

Has anyone else noticed the inconsistent — and yes, somewhat hypocritical — positions the Bush administration has taken toward damage awards US courts have imposed against Iraq and the Palestinian Authority? The administration is concerned that the $174 million award given to the family of a US citizen killed in Israel in 2002 will harm the Palestinian Authority’s “political and financial viability,” yet refuses to offer an opinion about whether a federal judge should nullify the award:

The decision in effect allows the State Department to sidestep a politically vexing issue concerning victims of terrorism, while retaining the option of intervening later if it appears that the cases could imperil the government headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, officials said. In its filing to the court yesterday, the administration said it supports compensation for victims of terrorism, but urged a settlement of the lawsuits to the “mutual benefit” of all parties.

Lawmakers had urged State in recent weeks not to intervene, and the families of victims held emotional meetings with officials from the State and Justice departments two weeks ago. All sides claimed some measure of victory with the filing yesterday.

“I am glad that the government will not interfere at this stage and am hopeful that it will refrain from supporting the legal position of the terrorists-defendants in the future,” said Leslye Knox, widow of Aharon Ellis, a U.S. citizen killed in Israel in 2002. A federal judge in 2006 ordered the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority to pay Knox and other Ellis relatives nearly $174 million, but nothing has been paid.

By contrast, the administration has actively opposed payment of the $1 billion in damages awarded to US soldiers who were tortured by Saddam’s regime:

In a court challenge that the administration is winning so far but is not eager to publicize, administration lawyers have argued that Iraqi assets frozen in bank accounts in the United States are needed for Iraqi reconstruction and that the judgment won by the 17 former American prisoners should be overturned.

If the administration succeeds, the former prisoners would be deprived of the money they won and, they say, of the validation of a judge’s ruling that documented their accounts of torture by the Iraqis — including beatings, burnings, starvation, mock executions and repeated threats of castration and dismemberment.

“I don’t want to say that I feel betrayed, because I still believe in my country,” said Lt. Col. Dale Storr, whose Air Force A-10 fighter jet was shot down by Iraqi fire in February 1991.

“I’ve always tried to keep in the back of my mind that we were never going to see any of the money,” said Colonel Storr, who was held by the Iraqis for 33 days — a period in which he says his captors beat him with clubs, broke his nose, urinated on him and threatened to cut off his fingers if he did not disclose military secrets. “But it goes beyond frustration when I see our government trying to pretend that this whole case never happened.”

Another former prisoner, David Eberly, a retired Air Force colonel whose F-15 fighter was shot down over northwest Iraq and who said his interrogators repeatedly pointed a gun at his head and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber, said he was surprised by the administration’s eagerness to overturn the judgment.

“The administration wants $87 billion for Iraq,” he said. “The money in our case is just a drop of blood in the bucket.”

I will leave it to our intrepid readers to discern the politics behind the different positions…

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