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Former foreign service workers win some relief in spending bill

Ambassador John W. Limbert, Jr. (left) is pictured on a photo displayed on his office wall with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (center) and former V.P. Walter Mondale (right). On Limbert's walls are many mementos of his experience as one of the Iranian hostages 26 years ago. He now teaches political science at the Academy. . -- THE BALTIMORE SUN STAFF -- 0024 MANDATORY CREDIT: No Mags, No Sales, No Internet, No TV, Washington Post, Washington Times, Baltimore Examiner and Washington Examiner OUT
Ambassador John W. Limbert, Jr. (left) is pictured on a photo displayed on his office wall with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter (center) and former V.P. Walter Mondale (right). On Limbert's walls are many mementos of his experience as one of the Iranian hostages 26 years ago. He now teaches political science at the Academy. . -- THE BALTIMORE SUN STAFF -- 0024 MANDATORY CREDIT: No Mags, No Sales, No Internet, No TV, Washington Post, Washington Times, Baltimore Examiner and Washington Examiner OUT (DAVID HOBBY / Baltimore Sun)

Dozens of former foreign service workers and their families who were held or killed overseas — including the 53 hostages captured in Iran nearly four decades ago — will be compensated for their ordeals as part of the massive federal spending legislation President Barack Obama signed last month.

Tucked into the $1.1 trillion measure to keep federal agencies open through the fall is a provision providing up to $4.4 million to each of the hostages held for 444 days after revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 — a watershed event for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

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Though the measure does not fully meet the claims made by some families, supporters described the effort as a significant breakthrough in a decades-long struggle between foreign service workers and a federal government that has approached compensation for victims of state-sponsored acts of terror inconsistently.

Though the Iran hostages have received the most attention, theirs is one of several international incidents covered under the new law. Other families who have sought compensation include those whose loved ones died in the 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya that killed 12 Americans and hundreds of Africans.

"This is monumental," said Edith Bartley, a Prince George's County woman whose father and brother were killed in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. "It signals to current and future foreign service officers that Congress recognizes the value of American foreign service personnel."

Bartley's father, Julian L. Bartley Sr., was the consul general in Nairobi. His son, Julian L. Bartley Jr., 20, was interning at the embassy at the time of the attacks, which were carried out by al-Qaida before most Americans had ever heard of the group.

The families have sought recognition, compensation and improved benefits from Congress for years. During that time, Washington paid those who lost family members in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as well as three Chinese families who lost relatives in the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War in 1999.

Though the former Iran hostages' situation was different legally, they faced similar bureaucratic and sometimes murky opposition to their claims.

At first, their effort to sue Iran was blocked by the Algiers Accords, the deal the Carter administration signed with the Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic of Iran in 1981 to secure the hostages' release. That document, which was not approved by Congress, barred the hostages from seeking a financial award from Iran.

The former hostages turned to Congress more than a decade ago to suggest several ways to pay for restitution that did not involve taxpayer money — such as a surcharge on fines assessed against businesses that violate sanctions against Iran. While there was no public opposition to the idea, supporters believe it met with quiet resistance from some in the State Department.

A department official said the agency has "long supported" efforts to provide compensation to the hostages.

Two developments appear to have created momentum for the group's effort. The 2012 Ben Affleck film "Argo" renewed public interest in the Iran hostage crisis. Negotiations with Iran that led to an international agreement over its nuclear program also brought attention to the former hostages.

Former Ambassador John W. Limbert was in the political office of the embassy in Tehran when it was overrun by students who backed Khomeini. Limbert, who spoke Persian, went out in the early minutes of the standoff in an effort to negotiate with the crowd, but wound up becoming one of the first people captured.

Limbert teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Naval Academy.

"It is a big deal in the sense of the length of time that it's taken us to work this out," Limbert said. "And it's nice to see something that's this bipartisan."

But Limbert has a more pessimistic view of the what their struggle for compensation signals to others considering a position in the foreign service.

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"Is this a story that would inspire someone to join the foreign service because they know they'll always be supported? Probably not, if they look into it closely," he said. "The point is, most of us love our careers, and we're very proud of our career despite these things."

Nearly 14,000 people worked in the foreign service in 2013, according to State Department figures. That's more than during the Cold War, though it represents a smaller share of all department employees.

At least some of the money for the victims will come from a $9 billion fine paid by the Paris-based BNP Paribas for violating U.S. sanctions against Sudan, Iran and Cuba. But exactly how much money each of the families will receive is not entirely clear.

Several advocates involved the effort credited Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Barbara A. Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, for pushing to include the language in the spending bill.

"A grateful nation never forgets," Mikulski said in a statement. "But for far too long, these families were forgotten."

The proposal had Republican supporters, too, including Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who represents several former Iran hostages. Isakson has been introducing stand-alone legislation on their behalf for years.

"The Iran hostages sacrificed mightily for our country," he said in a statement, "and I'm delighted that these brave men and women and their families are finally getting some semblance of justice and closure for what they went through."

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