As Pfc. Jessica Lynch returned to a nationally celebrated homecoming in West Virginia last week, the former prisoner of war’s Congresswoman found herself in a public relations pickle.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), a staunch ally of President Bush’s who was elected on his coattails, had introduced legislation just two months earlier aiming to help American prisoners of war seek monetary damages from the frozen assets of their captors.
But the Bush administration wants those assets too and is currently embroiled in a federal court fight to nullify a recent nearly $1 billion judgment granted to 17 U.S. POWs from the 1991 Persian Gulf War who want to use the funding to help current and future prisoners of war recover from their traumatic experiences.
Squaring off with the Pentagon, State Department and White House, Capito admitted she is facing an uphill battle. “It does have a difficult path,” Capito conceded in an interview Monday.
What is at stake is $1.7 billion in frozen Iraqi assets held in the Federal Reserve Bank in New York — assets Capito calls the “golden egg.” But to prevent the 17 POWs from siphoning off a good chunk of the frozen assets, government lawyers argued before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Tuesday that the government has a right to intervene in the landmark Acree v. Iraq case, of which it was not originally party to.
If the court grants the motion to intervene in Acree v. Iraq, government lawyers will then likely file a secondary motion to ask the court to vacate the original ruling outright.
Meanwhile, Capito is standing on the sidelines watching court developments. The Bush administration believes the assets should be used for reconstruction, but Capito thinks holding enemies accountable financially for mistreatment of American POWs is the right thing to do.
And she’s facing some tough opposition in Foggy Bottom and at the Pentagon. “The State Department has some natural hesitancy, so does the Department of Defense. Understandably so,” Capito said.
With Republican leaders pressing their Members to rally support for Bush’s handling of post-war Iraq, opposing administration policy on the matter has its risks for Capito.
At the same time, the Bush administration doesn’t want to alienate a key constituency: the military.
“There is certainly a lot of sympathy in this case,” said Taylor Griffin, a Treasury Department spokesman. Treasury officials believe the “critical” funds need to be released from the Federal Reserve as soon as possible to help aid Iraqi reconstruction.
“Our first priority is to make sure there aren’t any future victims, prevent terror and to make sure that we can build a stable society in Iraq,” Griffin said.
Still, Capito believes a compromise can be hammered out. “Obviously, we want to work it out with the executive branch in the coming weeks and months,” she said.
Her legislation, which is called the POW Protection Act and cites the Acree case, would advocate the U.S. government to help prisoners of war seek financial compensation from enemy states that violate international standards on POW treatment. And the easiest enemy resources to tap are frozen assets.
The bill also acts as a deterrent, Capito said, because U.S. enemies, whether it be individuals or state entities, will be less likely to mistreat U.S. soldiers in detention if they know it will hurt their pocketbooks after the dust settles.
But the most important factor in the future of Capito’s legislation is what happens in the courts with the Acree case. A decision on whether the government can intervene as a third party could come by the end of the week. And while that battle may be playing out in a federal courthouse only a few blocks from the Capitol, Congress remains largely oblivious to the conflict between the POWs and the Bush administration.
Capito isn’t making any predictions.
“I think it is too early to tell,” she said.
As it stands, the bill introduced in May by Capito and co-sponsor Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) hasn’t seen action. Capito said she is testing the waters with certain committees, namely International Relations and Armed Services, and is looking for more support from House Members. Currently, the bill has 10 co-sponsors.
The sensitive nature of the standoff has led both sides to tread lightly.
Attorney Stephen Fennell and his Steptoe and Johnson legal team, which is representing the 1991 POWs, could have mobilized a massive public relations war by pulling together key constituencies on Capitol Hill, but they have been focused on the case.
“We don’t feel that it is appropriate for Members to come in and weigh in on an issue before the court,” Fennell said, saying the case needs to be won in the judicial courts, not the court of public opinion.
Fennell says Congress has already given the go-ahead for tortured POWs to hold nations like Iraq accountable for prisoner of war torture. An amendment to the 1996 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act allows State Department-listed terrorist nations to be liable for personal injuries incurred by prisoners of war.
“This was professional torture,” Fennell said of his clients’ documented mistreatment in Iraqi captivity, which he said violated internationally mandated standards laid out in the Geneva Convention. “There is a right to just compensation, and Congress has said that,” Fennell added.