Libya negotiations grab Congress’s eye

Congress is pressing for more information about sensitive negotiations between the State Department and the Libyan government regarding settlements for terrorism attack victims.

In language added to the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations bill and approved by committee last week, lawmakers are calling for a report to be delivered on the State Department’s actions “to facilitate a resolution of these cases” 180 days after the bill becomes law.

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On May 30, the State Department and the Libyan government released a joint statement saying they entered into negotiations “on a claims settlement agreement.” Attorneys for terrorism victims protested the move, worrying their clients’ interests would be undermined by the U.S. officials’ desire to normalize relations with Libya.

But those negotiations appear to be progressing, according to a State Department spokeswoman.

“Libya has suggested a way to expedite a resolution of these cases through a comprehensive settlement agreement,” said the spokeswoman. “After confirming the serious intent of the Libyan government to resolve these claims and recognizing that a comprehensive settlement would expedite the resolution for claimants, it was determined that this was a proposal worth pursuing.”

Libya has sought to normalize its relations with the United States, after renouncing its weapons of mass destruction program in 2003 and being removed from the state terror sponsor list in 2006. But its unpaid claims to terrorism victims have hindered that progress.

Lawmakers also have banned assistance funds to Libya until victims of the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing and the 1986 bombing of Berlin’s La Belle discotheque are fully compensated, according to the language added to the bill. Moreover, the North African country must be “engaging in good faith settlement discussions regarding other relevant terrorism cases.”

“We recognize these congressional concerns over compensation to U.S. victims of past Libyan acts,” said the State Department spokeswoman. “The administration remains committed to helping American victims of terrorism obtain justice through fair compensation.”

Much of Libya’s debt to terrorism victims, however, remains unpaid.

Representatives for the Pan Am victims have estimated that Libya still owes them roughly 20 percent, or about $540 million, of the settlement agreed to by both parties. Libya owes about $114 million to the La Belle victims, according to the victims’ attorneys.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) added the language regarding Libya into the legislation, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The measure is likely to be stalled as Congress’s spending bills have made little progress, hampered by GOP amendments proposing to lift the offshore drilling ban.

Earlier this year, Lautenberg sponsored a provision that is now law and allows terrorism victims to seize assets of state sponsors of terror in order to pay down their settlements.

That provision and the State Department’s negotiations with Libya have set off a furious round of lobbying on both sides of the debate this summer.

Lobbyists for the Libyan government are pushing for an exemption from Lautenberg’s provision. Lobbyists representing attorneys for the terrorism victims are fighting to make sure the victims are included in any universal settlement agreed to by U.S. officials.

“Just as with the [Pan Am 103] settlement, we want to make sure all these cases are included in the universal agreement,” said Andrew Cochran, vice president for GAGE.

Cochran is lobbying for Motley Rice, one of the United States’ largest trial law firms, which is representing victims of bombings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The victims have accused the Libyan government of providing material support for those attacks, including weapons training and explosives like Semtex.

Last week, Cochran and others began circulating an eight-page white paper titled “The Precedent for a Global Settlement of All Anti-Terrorism Claims Against Libya” among State Department officials and congressional aides explaining the background of their case.

The paper argues that any universal settlement between Libya and the United States “must necessarily include the present case.” Unlike the Pan Am 103 and La Belle attacks, no agreement has been reached between the IRA bombings’ victims and Libya as of yet.

An attorney for the La Belle victims believes it would be unwise to depend on the State Department for compensation.

“The State Department sees their client as the country on the other side, not American citizens,” said Thomas Fortune Fay. “The State Department has fought against compensation for terrorism victims every step of the way.”

Fay has protested the ongoing negotiations between State and Libya since an agreement has already been reached between his clients and the North African country.

What remains a substantial concern for both Cochran and Fay is Libya’s desire for a congressional waiver from Lautenberg’s provision, which has the backing of the Bush administration.

Should Libya succeed, terrorism victims would lose an avenue to pursue compensation. Cochran is particularly worried that such a waiver may be quietly attached to an unrelated piece of legislation.

“We are hopeful and confident that anything won’t be included in an appropriations bill or a congressional resolution,” said Cochran.

But lobbyists for Libya have attempted to do so once already. An April 17 letter, filed with the Justice Department by the Livingston Group , asks members of Congress to attach such a waiver to the emergency war-spending bill that has since been signed into law.

“As it stands, [Lautenberg’s provision] continues to lump Libya into the same category with current, active state sponsors of terrorism, denying all of the progress that Libya has made and depriving them of any benefit from their good faith efforts to reform,” states the letter.

The letter was signed by former Reps. Bob Livingston (R-La.), Bob Clement (D-Tenn.) and William Zeliff (R-N.H.).

That effort failed as no waiver was added to the bill.