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Behind the Scenes of an Ill-Advised Defense Bill Veto

In August 1990, George Charchalis of Reno, Nev., was taken hostage by Iraqi soldiers, forever altering his life. After being brutally beaten, he was sent to a chemical weapons site in the Iraqi desert where he endured three months as a “human shield,” detained in a vermin- infested room, fed a starvation diet and denied medical treatment.

In December, Congress passed a massive Defense authorization bill that contained a provision that would have enabled Charchalis and other American victims of Saddam Hussein’s brutality to obtain compensation from monies Iraq has deposited in U.S. banks. Shockingly, on the basis of that single provision, President Bush vetoed the mammoth bill just before the New Year and demanded that Congress re-enact it without the offending language.

Why was Bush willing to make such a fuss over this provision? Because the State Department convinced him that Iraqi reconstruction would be imperiled. This misrepresentation is the latest in a series of obfuscations designed to conceal the State Department’s own responsibility for the hostages’ plight.

Had the department not advised them that the Iraqi troop buildup along the Kuwait border was of no concern, Charchalis and hundreds of other Americans might never have been stranded in a war zone. Likewise, had the department not then told them to stay put during the initial days of the crisis, they might have escaped to Saudi Arabia when it was still possible. And had the department not closed the gates of the U.S. Embassy to American civilians at the same time it was providing refuge to its own employees, Charchalis would have avoided his horrific ordeal.

Subsequently, the State Department could have held Iraq accountable by using frozen Iraqi funds on deposit in U.S. banks to compensate the human shields. But it did nothing. So Charchalis and about 400 other former hostages filed suit against Iraq under a 1996 law that permits American victims of terrorism to seek redress against rogue nations.

By mid-2002, 180 victims had obtained judgments totaling $94 million. And, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Bush authorized their payment from blocked Iraqi accounts. But the administration then transferred all remaining Iraqi funds to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, leaving 240 claimants, including Charchalis, out in the cold.

Acknowledging that this was grossly unfair, the Bush administration promised to “make sure that people who secure judgments find some satisfaction.” Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Congress that his department would lead that effort. But the department did nothing.

Then, when Congress stepped into the void, the department claimed the Defense bill provision would tie up “billions” in Iraqi money. As the department knows, that is a gross exaggeration. Iraq’s true exposure from all Hussein-era lawsuits is about 1 percent of the $25 billion Iraq has deposited in American banks — or less than what we have been spending in that country every day for the past five years.

Disgracefully, having abdicated its responsibility to American victims of terrorism, the State Department is attacking them for “privatizing” American foreign policy and intruding on its diplomatic turf. Worse yet, having delayed a military pay increase, the department and its supporters have gone so far as to blame them for “jeopardizing our troops in the field” and handing “a propaganda victory” to our enemies in Iraq.

As a combat veteran of the Korean War, Charchalis is hurt and offended by the accusation that he has put our troops at risk. And, as a civilian who gave up his chance for freedom by telling his Iraqi captors to “go to hell” when they were pressuring him to denounce his country, George justifiably resents the accusation that he has aided in a propaganda victory.

Charchalis has done nothing more than fight for his rights and those of his fellow hostages, and he asks nothing but that his government honor its promise to the hostages.

Daniel Wolf, a former attorney with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser, has 20 years of experience litigating sovereign immunity issues. He is presently lead counsel for the former American hostages in their lawsuits against the Republic of Iraq.

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