WASHINGTON -- For a quarter-century, Lt. Col. Howard Gerlach thought the explosion had blown him out the window of his second floor office. Then last year, at a reunion to mark the anniversary of the Oct. 23, 1983, bombing of the Marine headquarters at the Beirut airport, he met his rescuer.
Gerlach had been found trapped between the pancaked second and third floors. He remembers nothing about the immediate aftermath of the blast, which broke his neck and left him partially paralyzed. "You sure look a lot better now than the last time I saw you," his colleague told him.
Cleta Wells, of Mariposa, Calif., lost her husband, 1st Sgt. Tandy Walker Wells in the Beirut bombing, which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. citizens before 9/11. Her grandson, Michael Steven Pohle Jr., born eight days before the attack, was killed in the April 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.
The family had always seen Michael as God's recompense for Tandy. "He took both of them away," Wells said.
Gerlach and Wells are among hundreds of Americans, survivors and families both, who've waited 26 years for restitution for the bombing, fighting in courtrooms and the halls of Congress -- often against their own government.
On Sept. 30, District of Columbia U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth, who's presided over a decade's worth of terrorist victims' lawsuits against foreign powers, wrote in a 191-page opinion that "the notion of suing the terrorists out of business has not been realized.
"The harsh reality is that the promise of relief in these actions -- if there ever was one -- is more distant and seemingly illusory today than it was when this exercise started," Lamberth wrote, criticizing politicians in both Congress and the White House for falsely raising the families' hopes.
Lamberth was the same judge who in September 2007 ordered Iran to pay $2.65 billion to the families.
Four years earlier, he'd ruled Iran was responsible for the suicide truck bombing against the Marines, whom President Ronald Reagan had sent to Lebanon as peacekeepers. The powerful, sophisticated gas-enhanced bomb, with an explosive force estimated at 12,000 or even 22,000 pounds of TNT, had been the work of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group.
Now, as another anniversary passes, the survivors and their families fear they'll be forgotten as the Obama administration moves toward diplomatic engagement with the country behind the 1983 attack: Iran.
Wells no longer sees footage of that terrible day on her television. "You don't hear anything. You don't see anything. They say 'We'll never forget.' I'm sorry, they have forgotten."
If there was ever any doubt that Iran was behind the bombing, Lambert's 2003 ruling dispelled it.
Among the evidence in the trial, which Iranian representatives did not attend, were intercepted cables from Iran's foreign ministry to its ambassador in Damascus, Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, urging an attack on the American servicemen.
Congress passed a law in 2008 that should've made it easier for families to collect. Still, they haven't gotten a dime. Among the bill's Senate sponsors were Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Justice and State departments have gone to court repeatedly to block the families and their attorneys from seizing Iranian diplomatic property, funds held by foreign companies that do business with Iran, even 2,500-year-old Persian tablets on loan to the University of Chicago. Most assets in the U.S. held directly by Iran were moved out of the country as part of the agreement ending the 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis.
Most recently, in June, the Obama administration argued in federal court in San Francisco against the families and their attorneys, backing a judge's ruling that they couldn't claim assets of firms including CMA CGM, a French shipping company that does business in Iran.
Lawyers for State and Justice argued that the issue could have "significant, detrimental impact on our foreign relations, as well as on the reciprocal treatment of the United States and its extensive overseas property holdings."
President Barack Obama's position is no different from that of his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. All have argued that while Iran might be liable, the collections efforts interfere with presidential authority over foreign policy and violate the principle of "sovereign immunity," which generally bars lawsuits against foreign nations.
It's Obama, more than any president in three decades, however, who's tried to reach out to Iran and its hard-line leaders, inflaming the families' suspicions. Obama has also threatened tougher economic sanctions on Iran if it refuses to halt the enrichment of uranium that could be used for nuclear weapons.
"It's intensely frustrating. Because my brother lost his life to this terrorist nation, this state sponsor of terrorism," said Lynne Smith Derbyshire, whose brother, Capt. Vincent Smith, the Marine unit's air liaison, died in the bombing. Their father was an active-duty Marine at the time.
The U.S., Derbyshire said, should tell Iran it will come to the negotiating table after it makes amends. "They're just saying, You guys (the families) are pesky -- just get out of the way."
Gerlach said of the efforts to make Iran pay: "If I thought it was hurting our country, I would gladly forgo that."
He doesn't think that's true, however. This is, he says, "our chance to hold them accountable. Maybe it will have some effect on them."
The obstacles to collecting remain high.
A 2008 report by the Congressional Research Service, citing Treasury Department data, said that Iran has $51 million in known assets in the U.S. -- and $9.6 billion in U.S. legal judgments against it.
Lawyers for the families say they're undeterred.
In a footnote to his ruling, Lamberth wrote that families involved in the largest case against Iran stemming from the 1983 bombing have found and frozen $2 billion in securities in a New York financial institution that allegedly belong to Iran. The matter is under court seal, and attorneys said they were barred from discussing it.
"I'm an eternal optimist. You never know what's going to happen," said David J. Cook, a California collections attorney who's working with the families. Cook made his name by successfully going after O.J. Simpson's assets.
Cook said that Obama and his predecessors aren't taking Iran's side, even if it appears that way. "There's always a concern that private parties might hijack U.S. foreign relations," he acknowledged. "Is Hillary Clinton going to be flanked by the trial lawyers?"
Lamberth, however, called for a wholesale shift, saying that using private lawsuits against terrorist-sponsoring nations hasn't served the survivors.
"Regrettably, the tragedies represented by these cases . . . have been compounded by what has turned into a long and often futile quest for justice," he wrote. The law "has not provided the victims the relief they deserve. Instead of finding justice, most of these plaintiffs have found themselves holding unenforceable judgments."
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