Personal tribute: Leonard Garment (1924-2013)

How Len Garment achieved a little bit of justice for my family after a Sinai terror attack

Andrew Griffel, whose wife was one of 7 people killed by an Egyptian soldier at Ras Burka in 1985, recalls the extraordinary help Garment extended to him and his daughter in the aftermath, and the international precedent Garment set in the process

Tali Griffel and her mother, Anita Spindel (Photo credit: courtesy: Tali Griffel)
Tali Griffel and her mother, Anita Spindel (Photo credit: courtesy: Tali Griffel)

I was overwhelmed with a profound sadness when I saw the New York Times obituary headline on Monday: “Leonard Garment, a Wall Street litigator who was a top adviser to President Richard M. Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal and who went on to flourish as one of the capital’s most powerful and garrulous lawyers, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan.”

I immediately went to my bookshelf to pull out the copy of Len Garment’s autobiography that he gave me at the Random House book party heralding its publication in 1997. At the beginning of the book, I reread Len’s dedication: “To Tali Griffel – – A truly ‘favorite’ client. With admiration and affection and warmest wishes for the future (to Andy also)” 

Tali is my daughter.

Len’s autobiography is entitled “CRAZY RHYTHM – My Journey from Brooklyn, Jazz and Wall Street to Nixon’s White House, Watergate, and Beyond . . .”  It was in one of those “Beyonds” that I met and worked with him.

The book’s inner jacket flap describes Garment as “probably the hippest man ever to serve in the White House – a jazz musician with an affinity for artists, African-Americans, Jews, American Indians and the ‘rabble rousers’ of post-1960’s American politics, a man as comfortable with Dick Gregory as he was with Dick Nixon.”

But Garment, a Jew from Brooklyn who was close to several Israeli prime ministers, was also very comfortable talking to six-year old Tali who had just a few months before survived a terrorist attack in Sinai.

Leonard Garment, in 1973, representing President Richard Nixon in the Watergate Affair (Photo credit: wiki public)
Leonard Garment, in 1973, representing President Richard Nixon in the Watergate Affair (Photo credit: wiki public)

In October 1985, Tali had witnessed the murder of her mother and six other Israelis, four of them children, and barely escaped death herself at Ras Burka, a beautiful, tranquil beach located on the eastern shore of the Sinai Peninsula along the Gulf of Aqaba.

Ras Burka had become a very popular camping site for Israeli tourists who were permitted to visit there pursuant to the provisions of the 1979 peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

There was an official Egyptian military outpost on the highest sand dune overlooking the Israelis’ campsite at Ras Burka and, on the morning of October 5, 1985, Israeli children were gleefully sliding down the dune under the friendly watch of the Egyptian soldiers stationed there. The children’s parents and Egyptian soldiers sipped Turkish coffee together and marveled at the fact that, after the many decades of hostility between the two peoples, these once-bitter enemies were mingling and chatting with each other.

Tali’s mother, Anita, had instinctively jumped on top of Tali, using her body as a shield to protect Tali from the gunfire

On the afternoon of the same day, October 5, after a lunch break at their campsite, several of the Israeli children accompanied by three Israeli adults returned to play on the dune. After a few joyful moments of fun, the friendly and peaceful atmosphere that had prevailed earlier was shattered when, suddenly and unexpectedly, one of the Egyptian soldiers started shooting at them with his automatic rifle, killing four of the seven children and all three adults; two of the children managed to escape down the dune to the Israeli encampment.

Tali, the seventh child on the sand dune, barely survived the attack, suffering several chaparral wounds on her back. Tali’s mother, Anita, had instinctively jumped on top of Tali, using her body as a shield to protect Tali from the gunfire. The Egyptian soldiers found Tali embedded under Anita’s body, and held her captive into the late hours of the night pending instructions from military command headquarters in Cairo. They finally agreed to release her to the Israelis; she was two months shy of her sixth birthday.

I was living in Washington, DC, at the time and immediately went to Israel to bury Anita and bring Tali back to live with me. While in Israel, I met with the families of the other victims and we decided to sue Egypt for compensation. One of the fathers volunteered to take the lead in exploring the possibilities in Israel, including, it was hoped, getting the help of the Israeli government. I undertook to explore what could be done in the US and we agreed to report to each other regularly.

Anita Spindel in November 1979 (Photo credit: courtesy: Tali Griffel)
Anita Spindel in November 1979 (Photo credit: courtesy: Tali Griffel)

During the next few months, I met with at least a dozen of the top law firms in the Washington, New York and Boston areas, asking each to take on Tali’s case. I was then a managing associate at a prestigious international economic consulting firm founded by Robert R. Nathan, a member of president Roosevelt’s small circle of economic whiz kids and chairman of the War Production Board during World War II. Bob Nathan allowed me to use his name and it worked its magic, giving me access to the senior partners at each of the law firms.

Each lawyer with whom I met gave me the identical response: They would not take the case because it was impossible to sue a foreign sovereignty, there being no legal precedents for doing so. I was very frustrated and wasn’t sure what to do next.

During that time, I got to know Abe Sofaer, the legal adviser of the US State Department. His son and Tali were in the same class at the Jewish Day School right outside of Washington and he and his wife, Marianne — who was kindly introduced to us by Dorothy Harman — would often invite us to their home at weekends.

I told Abe about my unsuccessful search for a lawyer to represent Tali. Abe replied that the US government would support Tali’s case because she is an American citizen. He also knew an excellent lawyer to represent Tali — and arranged for me to meet Leonard Garment.

Len was unrelenting in pursuing Tali’s case

The next weekend, Len, Abe and I sat around the Sofaers’ swimming pool while Abe’s son Michael, Len’s daughter Annie, and Tali splashed around in the water. Len readily agreed to represent Tali; as the father of a five-year-old daughter, I sensed, he felt deep empathy for what had happened to Tali. I was overcome with gratitude to both Abe and Len.  During the next few months I met regularly with Len and two of his associates at his firm’s offices to discuss strategy and helped them draft the legal documents for Tali’s claim.

Leonard Garment in 1999 (photo credit: YouTube)
Leonard Garment in 1999 (photo credit: YouTube)

Len was unrelenting in pursuing Tali’s case. He used all his connections in Washington to prod the Egyptian government to agree to a settlement. He persuaded the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the chairmanship of Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana to pass a unanimous resolution stating that Congress would freeze the annual foreign assistance it gave to the Egyptians until they paid compensation to Tali. Len also used other connections such as the US ambassador to Egypt at the time, Fred Weisner.

Because she was an American citizen, Tali’s lawsuit was instituted separately from the one that the Israeli families were collectively trying to bring against the Egyptians. While Tail’s case received the full backing of the US government, the Israeli families were being stonewalled by the Israeli government, particularly officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry.

The Israeli families were told, quite outrageously, that it was important that nothing be done to upset the delicate negotiations taking place at the time between Egypt and Israel over Taba. Located on the coastline of the Gulf of Aqaba in Sinai just south of the Israeli-Egyptian border and near the Israeli city of Eilat, Taba was the site of a very lucrative hotel resort; ironically, Ras Burka was not too far way. (Taba was ultimately returned to Egyptian control, under the terms of the peace treaty.)

Len was able to arrange for the Egyptian ambassador to the US in Washington to personally hand over the check to Tali and offer an apology on behalf of the Egyptian government

The Israeli families, feeling hopeless, called me to ask if I would agree to find a way to attach their claims to that of Tali’s. I discussed this possibility with Len and, on his next trip to Cairo, he agreed to take the short detour to Israel to meet with the families’ attorney. I told Len that I would agree for him to unofficially present their case before the Egyptian authorities on the condition that Tali’s interests not be jeopardized.

Tali’s case against Egypt did become somewhat complicated when Len presented the claims of the Israeli families. Egypt could live with awarding its own funds to Tali since she was an American citizen and the pressure put on Egypt from the US Senate related only to her. However, giving their money to the Israelis was politically untenable for the Egyptians. So, Len asked his friend, financier Marc Rich, to “provide” the funds to cover the compensation for the Israeli families. Since Rich had considerable financial interests in Egypt and was known to them, the Egyptian authorities agreed to channel his money to the Israeli families. Rich’s funds were added to Tali’s original Egyptian settlement and it was called an “overall settlement.”

Andy Griffel and Anita Spindel in December 1972 (Photo credit: courtesy Tali Griffel)
Andy Griffel and Anita Spindel in December 1972 (Photo credit: courtesy Tali Griffel)

The compensation that Tali and the other families received was minuscule compared to monetary awards handed down in the United States. But at my behest, Len was able to arrange for the Egyptian ambassador to the US in Washington to personally hand over the check to Tali and offer an apology on behalf of the Egyptian government. I felt it was also important for Tali’s sense of justice that a representative of the Egyptian government meet with her to acknowledge that a grievous act had been done to her mother, Anita, and to her.

Afterwards, Len wanted to have a celebratory lunch and told Tali that we would go to any restaurant she wanted. Tali chose the McDonald’s around the corner from Len’s law office.

So there we were, huddled together in a McDonald’s booth: Len and his two associates, Joy Yanagida and Peter Morgan, Tali and me. The hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes never tasted so good.

Len Garment exhibited a rare quality often missing in the corridors of power: He was a true mensch. Through the years, I often intended to reconnect with him; in addition to greatly enjoying his company, I wanted once again to express my appreciation for what he did for Tali. Regretfully, I never followed through. His presence in this world will be sorely missed. I deeply mourn his passing.

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