Late in the evening of April 10, 1995, the day we lost our daughter Alisa to a suicide bomb, I received a long-distance telephone call from another father. He expressed his condolences and wondered aloud if he would show the same strength that I was displaying if his own daughter had been killed.
Before we hung up, Bill Clinton also told me he would help us obtain justice.
That is not how it has turned out.
Alisa, a 20-year-old student at Brandeis University on a trip to Israel, was traveling in Gaza when her bus was rammed by a van packed full of explosives. The driver was identified as a member of Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian organization funded largely by the government of Iran.
Alisa was the only American among the eight dead. President Clinton's apparently heartfelt sympathy--repeated when we met privately in March 1996--was only one of many expressions of support my family and I received from U.S. officials in the aftermath of that horrible crime. And soon, we were given hope for more concrete assistance.
Under a law passed a year after Alisa died, American citizens were given for the first time the right to use U.S. civil courts to sue foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks. At the signing ceremony, Clinton spoke movingly of our country's commitment to use all tools at its disposal to fight terrorism. This law would be my tool, I thought. I would use the institutions of a just society to seek justice.
But when I tried to use the law, I found the U.S. government wasn't really in my corner. In my attempts to demand that the sponsors of terrorism pay for their actions, I have received help only as long as my interests don't conflict with the administration's goals.
I did not take lightly the significance of suing a foreign country. In fact, I do not think I would have filed suit at all but for the very clear signals I had received that the Clinton administration would be on our side.
There were some cautionary notes. Early on, sympathetic State Department officials had been helpful in providing me with information about Alisa's killers. But when I asked them for assistance in beginning my lawsuit, their roundabout answer indicated that career diplomats might not be enthusiastic about our plans.
Nevertheless, Clinton still seemed encouraging at our next meeting--a few minutes alone during a New York fund-raiser in June 1996. I handed him a letter requesting government assistance in my lawsuit. As he put it in his jacket pocket, the president told me that he was behind me and my family.
In February 1997, I went to court. Acting as administrator of Alisa's estate, I filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington against the Islamic Republic of Iran, its president, its supreme spiritual leader and its minister of information. Because we had to pick a figure, we sought $100 million in damages. We served papers on the defendants via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran; the State Department actively assisted in getting the documents to the Swiss and ensuring that they were properly served.
Though the Iranian government never responded to our filing, we still had to make our case at trial. We presented 22 witnesses over two days in March 1998. And two weeks later, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth found in our favor and awarded $247.5 million in damages. Should we ever receive that money, my family has earmarked it for three causes: sending students to Israel; studying post-traumatic stress syndrome; and offering rewards for the capture of perpetrators of terrorism.
To say that I was heartened by events so far would be an understatement. Here I was, an average taxpayer, receiving what seemed to be the full support of the mighty United States of America in my quest to find justice for the death of my daughter and some meaning in its aftermath. All that remained was making the Iranians pay, which we expected to do using standard procedure: locate their assets in the United States, get a U.S. marshal to serve a writ, and obtain an order to have the assets sold.
That very afternoon, however, we were stunned by criticism from an unexpected quarter: Asked about our court victory, State Department spokesman James Rubin was quoted as telling reporters that the United States did not believe in judgments against foreign countries, but in negotiations with them.
Somehow, my use of a federal law, passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress and signed by the president, was being characterized as a violation of the foreign policy of the United States.
At first, I did not appreciate how serious the opposition was going to be. But things got worse. Because we could not attach those assets protected by diplomatic immunity, we went in search of commercial assets in the United States owned by the government of Iran. But when we asked the Treasury Department for help, the office of the secretary refused. It would be "too burdensome" to help us locate assets, I was told in June 1998.
We met with national security adviser Samuel Berger. It was disheartening, to say the least. He professed to know nothing about the lawsuit, and therefore used the time merely to express sympathy.
That September we had another setback. A victims' rights law had just been passed, which we believed would give us the ability to seize a wider range of Iranian government assets. But the law also gave the president the right to waive its provisions in the name of national security. And President Clinton--the man who called me the night my daughter died, who said he was behind us in our quest for justice--exercised that option.
Even as he denied us the right to seize Iranian properties, however, he promised--in an accompanying press release--that his administration would help "the Flatow family" locate "commercial Iranian assets" in the United States.
When cooperation was still not forthcoming, I wrangled another short meeting with the president this past February. I told him we needed answers to questions that we had put to the State Department about whether three banks were owned by the Iranian government. I must have gotten through because a few weeks later I got my answer--yes.
But such help had critical limits. For example, the government identified property owned by a foundation in Maryland that, it said, was controlled by Iran. When I went to Maryland to investigate, the head of the foundation denied any Iranian connection. So I appealed to the State Department to write an affidavit, something I could use in court. It declined. I am stymied.
Relations with the administration have reached a low. We've become the odd man out in what I thought would be a partnership. More than a year after obtaining the judgment, I'm still being opposed in my efforts to make the Iranians pay the price prescribed by U.S. law.
About 10 days ago, there was a hearing on our case before the Senate Judiciary Committee. To my ears, the administration officials who testified seemed only interested in delaying our efforts.
Am I frustrated? Yes. I think back over the time spent on trains from New Jersey to Washington, catching naps at Reagan National, walking the halls of the House and Senate office buildings to garner support for my part in our country's fight against terrorists and their sponsors.
I understand that the political realities have changed, that there is a new regime in Iran, one that has the potential to join the community of civilized nations. I understand that the State Department might not want to derail any diplomatic initiatives in that direction. And I would understand if department officials had simply said, "Bear with us during this difficult time and someday we will help you."
Instead, they continue to say that carrying out my judgment would endanger the security of the United States. If that's true, I'm the bad guy.
Is my cause worth the struggle? Of course it is. The only way we are going to defeat terrorists is by committed pursuit. To do anything less will allow these killers to get away with murder.
President Clinton once told me I was brave and courageous. I asked him if there was anything he wouldn't do for his daughter. He said no. "Just because Alisa is not here with us does not mean that we stop doing things for our children," I told him. And that is true--even if it means we have to challenge our own government to rise above that which is politically expedient.
Stephen Flatow is a lawyer in West Orange, N.J.