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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2002

Saudi suit probably futile

Many Americans will applaud the effort of some 600 families who lost relatives in the World Trade Center bombing to seek more than $1 trillion in damages from three princes of Saudi Arabia, seven international banks, and other defendants for allegedly supporting the terrorist efforts of Osama bin Laden.

As popular and righteous as it might seem, however, the lawsuit faces at best an uphill battle.

The Bush Administration has given no assistance to the survivors' claim, and understandably so. The United States has long been regarded as a safe harbor for international investors; in fact, our economy depends upon it to keep foreign dollars from fleeing this country. Some steps can be taken to freeze foreign assets, but it is difficult for any country, even one as powerful as ours, to try to corral assets that can be moved almost instantaneously across national borders.

The merits of the lawsuit will be fought in the courts for years. One cannot blame the families for doing all they can to gain restitution for the wrong done to them.

They seek redress, vindication, or punishment of temporizing tyrants and authoritarian leaders in the Middle East who dare not try to crush the fanatics in their midst, lest they be crushed themselves. The stern rhetoric of the administration on the war against terrorism is to the surviving families beginning to sound a little hollow.

Monetary compensation for wrongful deaths does have a sound basis in law. A similar lawsuit was brought against Libya in 1996, alleging it supported the terrorists who blew up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the airplane and 11 on the ground. Libya has offered to settle with the plaintiffs for $2.7 billion.

U.S.-Saudi relations have cooled in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The Saudi government is ruled by a royal family that has shown little inclination to destroy itself by pursuing bin Laden's mad cause. Somewhere between the $1 trillion lawsuit and the settlement offered by Libya for a terrorist attack 10 times or more smaller in scale lies a possible pattern for a settlement.

But first the courts would have to find that the preponderance of the evidence is that highly placed Saudi officials conspired to wage war against the American people. That will be a tall order.

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