Against the backdrop of the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is a law in preparation within the White House that might allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Arabia for trauma. There is a strong push from Congress to release 28 pages redacted from a Senate report on the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These pages point an accusing finger at Saudi Arabia as the principal backer of 9/11.
At the heart of the controversy is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. John Cornyn. The bill would prohibit foreign sponsors from invoking sovereign immunity and allow victims to file civil suits in cases involving terrorist attacks that kill U.S. citizens on U.S. territory. It also allows citizens to file civil suits against these sponsors that contribute to attacks.
In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the Senate passed JASTA in a unanimous vote in May with the House of Representatives also following the decision this month.
Pushback from the White House has still been swift and strong, arguing that such legislation and judicial pursuits would seriously harm national security. Namely, it would open the United States up to endless lawsuits against its government, military, corporations and citizens for terrorist acts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and so on.
The Obama administration has made no fuss about it—the president would simply veto the bill. So far, despite the heated words and patriotic posturing, the bill has not yet come into the Oval Office.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia reacted with threats and menaces, reminding everyone that it has been a trusted ally to the United States for about 80 years, a purveyor of oil and a holder of Treasury notes.
Nor can Saudi Arabia scant the significant military support and diplomatic weight that the United States brings to its war in Yemen. In geopolitical terms, it is a vital link in U.S. global strategy. Its withdrawal of billions of dollars can seriously affect the United States’ shaky economic recovery.
Over the summer, with pressure from the White House for senators and congressmen and women to change their vote on JASTA, divisions have risen among key Republicans. The Democrats have stayed relatively firm in their support. However, on Sept. 17, Cornyn slipped in an amendment that would give the families of 9/11 victims a boost.
The substitute phrasing significantly altered the original bill. It would narrow the authority of the United States to process claims against private citizens overseas. It would also restrict claims against foreign sovereigns solely on indirect support for 9/11. Perhaps most notably, it would increase the legal burden for anyone who brought suits to collect any damages that were rewarded. In other words, it would deny families of the fallen in 9/11 any additional remedy or closure. The Cornyn sleight of hand is a never-ending case of legal action without any satisfying adjudication, save mounting court and lawyer fees.
It is interesting to point out that Saudis, through the Saudi Arabian Oil Company—better known as Aramco—are in the midst of tying up the merger of a big refinery in the Houston ship channel.
The channel, owned by the Dutch Lyondell Basell, has consolidated its predominant position that it has already upgraded four years ago for $10 billion, in partnership with Royal Dutch Shell and Motiva Enterprises. In consequence, in a soft oil and gas market, Aramco will have a dominant hold on gasoline, diesel and other products. The infusion of Saudi capital would give a huge boost to Texas’ economy.
As amended, the bill will pass in Congress. During an election year, Congress will most likely find difficulty in voting against it since, fundamentally, it is a vote against the families of 9/11 victims.
The president, however, will keep his word and veto it. Even if Congress manages to override his veto, it would be a symbolic victory, but a cold comfort for the families of 9/11 victims who feel as though they deserve some sort of closure.
At least Obama’s treatment of a veto is straightforward and unequivocal, based on a reason of state. No matter what, the families of the fallen on 9/11 and its victims will always suffer in this political tug-of-war.