US Senate passes bill for 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudis

Published May 18th, 2016 - 10:03 GMT
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) exit a news conference concerning the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), on Capitol Hill, May 17, 2016, in Washington, DC. (AFP/Getty Images/Drew Angerer)
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) exit a news conference concerning the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), on Capitol Hill, May 17, 2016, in Washington, DC. (AFP/Getty Images/Drew Angerer)

The US Senate on Tuesday passed legislation that would allow families of the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to go after the government of Saudi Arabia for damages -- a proposition shunned by the Obama White House.

The Senate unanimously passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act on Tuesday, which opens up the Saudi government to legal action from families of those killed on 9/11.

"The purpose of this Act is to provide civil litigants with the broadest possible basis, consistent with the Constitution of the United States, to seek relief against persons, entities, and foreign countries, wherever acting and wherever they may be found, that have provided material support, directly or indirectly, to foreign organizations or persons that engage in terrorist activities against the United States," the text of the bill states.

The act, co-sponsored by Democratic New York Sen. Charles Schumer, must now be passed by the House before it heads to President Barack Obama's desk.

"For the sake of the families, I want to make clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that every entity, including foreign states, will be held accountable if they are found to be sponsors of the heinous act of 9/11," Schumer said. "If the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear about going to court. If they did, they should be held accountable."

Even if it does reach the White House, Obama has already indicated he will veto it.

"If we open up the possibility that individuals and the United States can routinely start suing over governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries," Obama said last month.

The Saudi government has also warned of impending troubles if the legislation makes it to law. In March, the government said it may sell off $750 billion in Treasury securities and other assets in the United States for fear they will be frozen by courts.

Last month, Obama traveled to Riyadh to discuss the matter with King Salman.

The Persian Gulf nation has never been conclusively linked to the 2001 terrorist attacks, but 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Further, some believe Saudi Arabia has provided support for militants, in some fashion, for decades.

A 28-page section of the Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, released in 2004, addresses the role of foreign governments in the plot -- but remains classified and out of public view.

Suing Saudi Arabia, as well as other nations in the region, is tricky because of a 1976 law that shields them from lawsuits from American courts. The Senate's bill seeks to establish an exception to that law, which would open avenues of litigation for any nation protected with immunity if it is found to be culpable in deadly terror attacks inside the United States.

Even if Obama vetoes the bill, Schumer said he believes there are enough votes in Congress for an override. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the bill's other sponsor, said he believes the Saudis' threat to sell off assets is a bluff.

"I do believe that there's going to be some saber rattling, some threats, but I think that [the threats] are hollow," he said.

"It will hurt them a lot more than it hurts us," Schumer added.


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