'We Want To Hurt Iran'

James Knipple was a 20-year-old captain when he was killed during one of the most infamous acts of terrorism against the U.S.: the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983. He and the other 240 soldiers killed had been In Lebanon on a U.S. peacekeeping mission. Now, their families are on a mission of their own.

On Monday, hundreds of relatives of those who died in the attack filled the U.S. District Courthouse in Washington, D.C., for the first day of a civil trial seeking damages from the country they say sponsored the attack: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The landmark lawsuit lists more than 150 families as plaintiffs.

Knipple's sister, Deborah Peterson, and her family are among them. Peterson, who was 28 at the time of the blast, still remembers her father's phone call and the excruciating three-week wait that followed before her brother's remains were identified. "A day has not gone by since then that I have not thought about him," she says of her brother.

But there have been days over the past 20 years when she wondered if the U.S. government thought about Knipple and the other Marines who lost their lives that day. The bombing has long been linked to Hizbullah, a Lebanese group of Shiite militants that seeks to create a Muslim fundamentalist state modeled on Iran. But U.S. intelligence had intercepted a message before the bombing indicating the state of Iran had actually ordered the attack. "We know with certainty the Iranian ambassador in Damascus [Syria] called in [former Hizbullah leader] Hussein Moussawi and gave him instructions to conduct attacks against the forces in Lebanon and to take a 'spectacular action' against the U.S. Marines," says Adm. James Lyons, who testified in court on Monday.

Lyons, who was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans, Policy and Operations at the time of the bombing, received a copy of the intercepted message--two days too late. "I thought, where the hell had this damn thing been?" he tells NEWSWEEK. (The message had been picked up about four weeks earlier.)

"There were a number of actions and plans we formulated afterward to go after those responsible," adds Lyons. "But we never got to execute those plans."

When asked why, he sighs. "I've asked myself that question a thousand times. And I can't give you an answer on it. We had the goods. We essentially over the years have not laid a hand on Iran."

Now, families of the victims hope to lay their hands on Iran's assets. "We want Iranian money. We want to hurt Iran," says Peterson. "We want to deter Iran from future acts of terrorism. They need to be held accountable."

Steven R. Perles and Thomas Fortune Fay, who are representing the families, estimate the damage assessments could take six to nine months after the judge rules that Iran is at fault--which could happen within the next 30 days--and could reach $2.3 billion or more, or about $15 million per plaintiff.

"It's not unreasonable to expect we'll get this money," says Perles. "I do not bring this case for symbolic reasons. I bring this litigation for the express purpose of taking money away from sponsors of state-terrorist events."

Peterson and the other plaintiffs in this case are not the first to use the courts for such a purpose.

In 1996, Congress gave victims of terrorism the right to sue countries that were on the State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism, including Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Iran (which was added shortly after the Beirut barracks bombing).

Since the antiterrorist legislation was passed, several successful cases have been filed against Iran, which shares the dubious distinction of being linked with Iraq and North Korea in what President George W. Bush has called the "Axis of Evil."

Perles and Fay have won three of the 10 largest judgments in past cases against Iran, for a total of nearly $1 billion in damages. They won a judgment for $247 million to the family of Alisa Flatow, who was killed in Israel in April 1995 in a Palestinian suicide bombing; $327 million to the families of two young Americans, Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Rachel Duker, killed in a February 1996 Hamas bus bombing, and $314.6 million to the family of former Lebanon hostage Father Lawrence Jenco, a Catholic priest. Perles says they have been able to collect about $68 million from those judgments so far.

Under the normal rules of combat, U.S. troops do not have a clear legal right to sue. But in an historic ruling, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth found that since the Marines were on a peacekeeping mission under peacetime rules of engagement, their family members could sue Iran. This is the first case to consider whether the antiterrorist law applies to American military personnel.

In the past, the money paid to victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism has been coming from a special fund in the U.S. Treasury that matches the $400 million held in an account from frozen Iranian assets, and covers compensatory damage awards. But in the case of the Beirut bombing victims, Perles is not counting on getting money from the U.S. Treasury. He expects to collect the judgments by claiming frozen Iranian assets abroad and those "hidden" in the United States.

Even if the plaintiffs are unable to collect all the money from Iran, they say they are happy to have the chance to hold Iran accountable in a court of law--and believe the message the case sends is as important as the money collected.

"Really, an exposure is certainly as important as the financial reward," agrees Sandra Coliver, executive director for the Center for Justice and Accountability, which is in the process of filing a claim against Iran on behalf of a naturalized U.S. citizen who was held and tortured for three years in an Iranian prison. "It's important for the plaintiffs themselves to have an opportunity to expose the direct complicity of the government in this type of crime."

Whether the judgments alone will deter states from sponsoring terrorism is questionable, however. They typically are found guilty in abstention and refuse to pay out the judgment. "Those people that generally do these sorts of things [terrorist acts] probably don't consider these kinds of consequences," says Judd C. Iversen, executive director of the Center for Law and Global Justice at the University of San Francisco.

But that might be changing as more cases are filed. "It may well be that we're in a transition period and people are just now becoming aware of the fact that they can be prosecuted," says Iversen. "Civil cases are interesting because they can often go where criminal cases can't."

For Peterson, the civil trial is a chance to continue the mission her brother was unable to complete.

"They were on a peacekeeping mission they believed in and they didn't get to finish it. I think we can finish it for them by holding Iran responsible and seeking justice and an end to terrorism--a goal we hope that will lean toward peace," she says. "We don't want to be victims of terror anymore. We want to be soldiers in the war on terrorism; the courtroom is our battlefield."