Image: Richard Dale Storr
Lt. Col. Richard Dale Storr of Spokane, Wash., one of the plaintiffs, shown here a day before he was shot down during the Gulf War in 1991.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com

Jeffrey Fox remembers vividly the moment he heard that he and 16 others held and tortured during the first Gulf War had won a $1 billion judgement against Iraq. “I was, well, wow!” the retired Air Force pilot told MSNBC.com Monday. But wow soon turned to “whoa” when he realized the only way to collect that money would be to sue the Bush administration to prevent it from spending frozen Iraqi assets on postwar reconstruction.

“I will admit there was a little bit of a very small second thought,” says Fox, downed over Iraqi-occupied Kuwait in February 1991. But given Iraq’s oil wealth and the gargantuan sums being discussed for the occupation — $3.9 billion a month, at latest count — Fox says he and his comrades felt justified.

“If this were some small Central American country, then alright,” he says, “But I feel the money for reconstruction can be found without depriving us of our rightful judgment.”

DIFFICULT CALL

Fox, along with 16 more Gulf War heroes, spoke of the wrenching decision to sue the government. One plaintiff, the son of another downed airman, said, “My dad isn’t proud of the suit.” But over the weekend, attorneys for the 17 POWs won a temporary restraining order against the government’s plan to use $1.7 billion in Iraqi assets frozen before the 1991 war to pay for reconstruction.

Attorney Stephen Fennell, representing the POWs and their family members, says the decision to sue the government was made only after it became clear that the Bush administration was not going to intervene and offer any kind of settlement.

“It is ironic now that they and their loved ones have at last been awarded compensation for the grievous physical injuries and psychological damages they incurred,” Fennel says, “it is the executive branch of their own government that is blocking their ability to collect.”

A SEARCH FOR JUSTICE

On July 9, U.S. District Court Judge Richard W. Roberts awarded the POWs $959 million in damages for their suffering, denouncing what the judge termed “unrestrained savagery” on the part of the Iraqis. The POWs stand to collect between $16 million and $35 million each, while 37 family members could receive damage awards of $5 million to $10 million a piece.

By winning a 10-day temporary restraining order against the Bush administration, however, the plaintiffs hope to raise the political cost of ignoring their awards.

The restraining order prevents the Treasury Department, which is holding the $1.7 billion in Iraqi assets in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, from adding that money to the budget of the U.S. occupation.

“I can’t imagine them saying, ‘OK, here are the 17 guys who were tortured, but let’s give the money to the Iraqis anyway,’ ” Fox says. “I never really believed we would see any money, but I’m beginning, just a little, to think we’re close.”

Another former POW, Jeffrey Zaun, who was shot down and then paraded through the streets of Baghdad with other captives, says administration officials have been less than honest about how the frozen Iraqi assets will be used.

“They’re saying that money is going to feed widows and orphans in Iraq, and that’s just bull,” says Zaun, now an analyst with Standard and Poor’s in New York. “That money’s not going anywhere. It’s being held for the Iraqi government, and unless you take that money away, then there is no message sent about POWs or abuse or anything.”

COSTLY REBUILDING

Along with some oil revenues, recovered loot from inside Iraq and other sources, the frozen Iraqi assets are earmarked by the Bush administration to be a significant portion of the $6 billion reconstruction budget of L. Paul Bremer III, the occupation’s U.S. administrator.

Calls Friday and Monday to the White House for comment were referred to the National Security Council press office. Calls left at the NSC were not returned.

For the POWs themselves, the idea of suing a wartime president did raise some hackles.

Retired Navy A-6 pilot Bob Wetzel says memories of his own ordeal as a prisoner at the infamous “Baghdad Hilton,” as the dungeon-like basement of Saddam’s secret policy became known, helped him overcome his reluctance.

“When I learned we had the right to do this, I initially didn’t want to get involved,” says Wetzel, now a United Airlines co-pilot based in Denver. “But then I thought, maybe this is the turning point. Maybe you can finally say, ‘enough is enough’ and start deterring countries that mistreat prisoners of war. That’s why the money is important to me.”

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