A Jewish community initiative to bring to justice those who kill Americans overseas has become law.
Provisions of a bill spearheaded by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), dubbed the Koby Mandell Act, were incorporated into the omnibus spending bill President Bush signed last week.
The provisions would create an Office of Justice for Victims of Overseas Terrorism within the Justice Department. Justice and State Department officials would form a task force when terrorists kill an American citizen overseas.
Named after a 13-year-old Israeli American boy who was killed by a Palestinian mob in the West Bank in 2001, the bill has been a ZOA priority. It originally was designed to place pressure on the U.S. government to find Palestinians who had killed Americans in terrorist attacks against Israel.
But the initiative was not prominent on the lobbying agendas of many other Jewish groups, who complained that the legislation was too narrow and was designed primarily to chastise the State Department for not doing more against Palestinian terrorists, not as an effective counterterrorism measure.
The version of the bill that passed Congress last month did not include many of the findings included in the ZOA version introduced in 2003. That version said "the United States government has not devoted adequate efforts or resources to the apprehension of terrorists who have harmed American citizens overseas, particularly in cases involving terrorists operating from areas administered by the Palestinian Authority."
ZOA's version also would have put the new office in charge of the Rewards for Justice program, which advertises rewards in foreign countries for the capture of terrorists who attack Americans.
The ZOA's president, Morton Klein, has long accused the program, which currently is controlled by the State Department, of ignoring Palestinians who kill Americans.
The omnibus language does say the office should be created "as recommended by the Koby Mandell Act of 2003," suggesting the ZOA language should be considered. It's unclear whether the Rewards for Justice program will be moved to the Justice Department.
But Klein said he's happy with the current legislation, and that his organization had looked at every possible avenue to get the provisions through Congress.
"Our vision is very clear," Klein said. "We are looking forward to this office taking as the central focus of its existence the prosecution of Palestinian Arabs who killed Americans."
Other Jewish leaders said the legislation could have been passed earlier if it had been directed more broadly. Some U.S. Jewish lobbyists who spoke on condition of anonymity said Klein resisted efforts to broaden the legislation and wanted the office to focus solely on victims of Palestinian violence, as opposed to all Americans killed overseas.
The Jewish leaders said they wanted the office to be included as part of legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, but met resistance. They noted that under Klein's view of the office, it would not have jurisdiction in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, a Jew who was killed by terrorists in Pakistan.
Klein said he would have been open to the possibility of placing the office within the Homeland Security department, but wanted it to alleviate the disparity of Palestinians not being sought for the killing of Americans.
"If the federal government was searching to find and prosecute Palestinian Arabs with the same commitment as they do most other foreign nationals, this legislation would not be needed," he said.
Klein said he is working to ensure that the office, which currently has no appropriation, will be funded. He said he is encouraged that the process will be overseen by the next likely chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who backed the Koby Mandell Act.
Other Jewish leaders hope the office will serve as an advocate for the families of victims of terrorism, and will coordinate law enforcement initiatives in the United States and other countries.