SEPT. 14, 2016 — House Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on much. But they did come together on Sept. 9 to back legislation that would allow the families of people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. to sue Saudi Arabia for whatever role, if any, Saudi officials might have had in the plot.
The legislation now goes to President Barack Obama. The White House on Monday said what it has been saying for months — that Obama will veto the bill. If he does, then Congress should override him. There are more than enough votes in both chambers.
The question of possible Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks at some official level has never been fully put to rest. A redacted 28-page document from a 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks was finally made public last July. It revealed contacts between Saudi officials and the 9/11 hijackers, but was by no means a smoking gun.
The September 11 Commission’s report, released in 2004, concluded that there was no evidence that the Saudi government or any senior Saudi officials were involved in the 9/11 attacks. Still, members of that commission have said their report did not rule out involvement by lower ranking Saudi officials. And for years, families of victims of the 9/11 attacks have claimed that the Saudis financially support terrorism. Those families filed lawsuits that attempt to hold the Saudi government liable.
Their attempts have failed, however, because of a 1976 law that grants foreign governments immunity from litigation in U.S. courts. The new law Congress has passed, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, negates that immunity for foreign governments that have been found culpable for terrorism that kills U.S citizens on American soil. The law leaves it up to the courts to rule on allegations of a foreign government’s involvement in terrorist attacks committed in the U.S.
New York Democratic lawmaker Chuck Schumer, one of the bill’s sponsors, says if the Saudis weren’t involved in the 9/11 attacks, “they have nothing to fear about going to court.” We think Schumer’s right.
Fifteen years after that terrible day, we still do not know everything that we need to know about the attacks, and the meetings and planning that preceded them. It’s crucial that victims’ families have the means to resolve those questions — or at least to know they’ve proceeded as far as they possibly can.
The White House’s principal argument against the new law is that other governments could use it to justify retaliatory lawsuits against the U.S. “It’s not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats, U.S. service members or even U.S. companies into courts all around the world,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
The problem with that line of thinking is that the new law’s parameters are sufficiently narrow: It’s about foreign governments that facilitate terrorism. In any case, there are regimes all over the world that already manufacture legal cases as they see fit. It’s a reality that the U.S. deals with right now, and would continue to face — with or without this law.
The Saudi government has denied any connection with the 9/11 attacks, and points to the September 11 Commission’s findings as proof of that. The Saudis also threaten to sell off $750 billion in Treasury securities and other U.S. assets if JASTA becomes law. That’s their right, though experts have said it would hurt their economy more than it would hurt ours.
Also important to remember: This measure isn’t just about the 9/11 attacks and Saudi Arabia. It applies to any future terrorist attack on U.S. soil in which there are questions raised about a foreign government’s role in that attack. Terrorism isn’t going away, and neither are countries that, to varying degrees, empower terrorists.
Make no mistake, Saudi Arabia is a vital U.S. ally. It’s an energy giant, and it’s an important counterpoint to the Iranian regime’s intent to exert a stranglehold on the Middle East. But we cannot afford to look the other way when it comes to culpability for terrorism — if there’s compelling evidence of a connection. The new law isn’t an indictment of Saudi Arabia or any other country. It’s merely a means to get at the truth.