The Senate unanimously passed a bill allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for any potential role in the attack, escalating a showdown with the White House over a bill that could spark new tensions with a key Gulf ally.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama was unlikely to sign the (Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act) if it passes the House. He cited concerns that foreign governments could craft similar legislation in retaliation that would remove legal protections known as sovereign immunity for American citizens or U.S. officials, allowing them to be sued in foreign courts.
The White House isn’t alone in worrying about the potential impact of the legislation. With less than six months left before Election Day 2016, even senators who support the bill fret it could further strain the already-tense relationship between Washington and Riyadh — and leave the next administration to deal with the consequences.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who supported the bill and worked to improve it, said he and other senators anticipated the White House veto threat. He too has lingering concerns over the bill’s potential negative impact on U.S.-Saudi relations and the principle of sovereign immunity.
“I understand with all the families of the 9/11 victims the tremendous desire to get this done,” he told Foreign Policy. “There’s just a little bit of unease when you deal with sovereign immunity issues that it may backfire on us, or other countries.”
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who himself dropped out of the presidential race early on, also expressed concerns over Saudi Arabia’s opposition. Just back from a trip to Riyadh, he told Foreign Policy that officials didn’t bring it up, but the tension is “always lingering in the room.” Graham has long trumpeted the significance of the Gulf ally in the Middle East, particularly in the ISIS fight. He hopes Riyadh doesn’t take the bill personally.
“The concept of being able to hold nation states liable if they interact with terrorist groups is not about Saudi Arabia; it’s about the world at large,” he said.
Graham pointed to U.S. support for Kurds in Syria, adding that if they joined a terrorist group to conduct an attack in Turkey, the U.S. would not want to be held liable. “Am I worried about the precedent this sets, how it could be used against us one day? Yes.”
The bill comes at an already fraught moment. Washington wants Riyadh to do more in the fight against the Islamic State, but the Saudis have expressed growing unease over Washington’s warming relationship with Iran, its biggest regional rival. Then there’s bipartisan push for the new legislation; the growing calls to declassify portions of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks that focused on Saudi Arabia’s potential involvement in the strikes; and Obama’s recent use of the term “free riders” to describe Saudi Arabia and other American allies around the world.
The White House declined to comment to Foreign Policy on whether Obama was prepared to veto the legislation, referring to Earnest’s comments. The White House also declined to comment on whether Riyadh had directly expressed concerns over the legislation to any administration official, noting only that it wasn’t brought up during Obama’s visit to the kingdom in April. A source close to the Saudi government, however, said its opposition has been clearly communicated to the White House.
Riyadh has long denied any Saudi government involvement in 9/11. It opposes the new bill because it says the legislation would threaten not only Saudi citizens and officials with American legal action, but Saudi investments, which could be frozen by U.S. courts. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir warned Riyadh would have little choice but to sell off as much as $750 billion in U.S. assets if Obama signed the bill into 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,” he said on May 3. “That’s why the [Obama] administration is opposed to it, and that’s why every country in the world is opposed to it.”
The bill has divided the Democratic Party, pitting prominent lawmakers and the party’s two candidates for president against the current occupant of the White House.
Last month, both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders broke with the Obama administration to express their support for the bill, introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).
“Obviously, we’ve got to make anyone who participates in or supports terrorism pay a price, and we also have to be aware of any consequences that might affect Americans, either military or civilian or our nation,” Clinton said in an ABC interview on April 17.
On Tuesday, Clinton’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the bill’s passage or its potential long-term impact on U.S.-Saudi relations. A Sanders spokesperson noted that he was a co-sponsor of the legislation, but didn’t comment on its potential effects.
Presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Clinton and Sanders have said U.S. allies, particularly Gulf partners, need to do more in the fight against the Islamic State, with Clinton saying regional powers should put up the ground troops necessary to retake ground from the terrorist group. They’ve also criticized Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric for potentially making it harder to persuade such key allies to enter the fight.
Trump, for his part, has shown no signs of backing away from his past comments about Muslims or his assertions that American allies from Europe to the Gulf weren’t contributing enough to their own defense and instead relying on the U.S. to ensure it for them.
The 9/11 issue is a complex one for Trump. Trump has also engaged in other conspiracy theories about the attacks, from alleging that the Bush administration was complicit to claiming that Muslims in America were seen celebrating. The Obama administration is weighing whether to declassify the 28 pages of the 2002 congressional inquiry into the attacks that deal with whether Saudi officials played a role. Trump has said he has no doubts about what the answer is.
“I think I know what it’s going to say,” he said of the 28 pages in an April interview on Fox News. “It’s going to be very profound, having to do with Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia’s role on the World Trade Center and the attack.”
Several of the 9/11 commission report’s authors have emphasized they support the declassification of the 28 pages because they say it will clear up any mystery. The commission found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al Qaeda or the 9/11 attackers.
For now, the next likely step is House consideration of the bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan has expressed concerns with the legislation, saying last month, “I think we need to review it to make sure that we’re not making mistakes with our allies and that we’re not catching people up in this that shouldn’t be caught up in this.”
Cornyn told Foreign Policy Tuesday that House counterparts have signaled support, but it’s unclear as of yet whether there’s enough for the House to pass the measure and send it to Obama’s desk.