US Senate passes bill allowing 9/11 attack victims to sue Saudi Arabia

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act has triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the US economy if the bill is enacted.

By: AP
John Cornyn

Sen. John Cornyn. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia, rejecting the fierce objections of a United States ally and setting Congress on a collision course with the Obama administration.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, approved by voice vote, had triggered a threat from Riyadh to pull billions of dollars from the US economy if the bill is enacted.

The legislation, sponsored by Senators John Cornyn, (R-Tx) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), gives victims’ families the right to sue in US court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks that killed thousands in New York, the Washington, D.C., area and Pennsylvania.

The House still must act on the legislation.

Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release US intelligence that allegedly discusses Saudi involvement in the attacks.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir denied earlier this month that the kingdom made any threats over the bill. He said Riyadh had warned investor confidence in the US would shrink if the bill became law.

“In fact what they (Congress) are doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities, which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle,” Al-Jubeir said in a May 3 statement.

The Treasury Department said Monday that Saudi Arabia in March held $116.8 billion in Treasury debt.

Passage of the bill sends the message that the US “will combat terrorism with every tool we have available, and that the victims of terrorist attacks in our country should have every means at their disposal to seek justice,” Cornyn said.

Charles Schumer

Sen. Charles Schumer. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Schumer said that any foreign government that aids terrorists who strike the US “will pay a price if it is proven they have done so.”

Senate Democrats had firmly supported the legislation, putting them at odds with the Obama administration. The White House has said the bill could expose Americans overseas to legal risks, and spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday efforts to revise the legislation fell short in addressing the administration’s concerns about preserving sovereign immunity.

“Given the concerns that we’ve expressed, it’s difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation,” Earnest told reporters at the White House.

Schumer was confident the Senate had the necessary two-thirds vote of the chamber to override a presidential veto.

“We don’t think their arguments stand up,” the New York lawmaker said at a news conference after the Senate action.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, had blocked the bill from moving to the Senate floor until changes were made to ensure the legislation didn’t backfire on the US.

Graham’s apprehension was rooted in the possibility a foreign country could sue the US if the door is opened for US citizens to take the Saudis to court. Graham released his hold earlier this month, clearing the way for Senate action.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, also had warned that the legislation, if passed, would alienate Saudi Arabia and undermine a longstanding yet strained relationship with a critical US ally in the Middle East.

Schumer said it is false to claim that the bill encourages retaliation or litigation against the US.

“We’re not busy training people to blow up buildings and kill innocent civilians in other countries,” Schumer said.