9/11 families can sue Saudi Arabia, Senate says. Why such suits could backfire

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia. But the Obama administration says that if passed, the law could open the doors to many lawsuits from abroad. 

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum at ground zero in New York City. The Senate this week approved legislation that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.

The Senate passed legislation Tuesday to allow any of the nearly 3,000 families of the Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for any role it might have had in the attacks.  

New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D), one of the legislation's sponsors, said it would "bring a small measures of justice" to the victims and their families and hold Saudi Arabia "accountable."

But the Obama administration, the Saudi government, and others are of a different opinion: The legislation could expose the United States to an international relations nightmare. 

"[T]he potential exposure such a measure would bring to the U.S. is inestimable," wrote the Los Angeles Times in an editorial that slammed the bill

Expect to see civil claims by victims of collateral damage in [US] military attacks, lawsuits by people caught up in the nation's post-9/11 detention policies, including Guantanamo Bay, and challenges over atrocities committed by U.S.-backed Syrian rebels. Pretty much anywhere that U.S. policies have led to damages, those who suffered could potentially seek redress in their own courts, jeopardizing American assets overseas, where the rule of law sometimes is solid, but in other cases is a tool wielded for political purposes." 

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would give Americans the right to bring a lawsuit against any foreign government tied to terror attacks on US soil. The legislation, however, is meant to allow the families of victims of 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia, since some lawmakers allege it supported some of the 19 terrorists.  

In addition to urging the Obama administration to declassify 28 pages of an 838-page congressional report about the attacks, thousands of family members brought a class-action lawsuit against Saudi Arabia, albeit unsuccessfully. A federal judge dismissed Riyadh from the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs did not present sufficient evidence the government was involved. And the US Supreme Court later declined to take up a case that examined if the lower courts should have dismissed the lawsuit altogether.  

The legislation on the table aims to amend the 1976 Foreign Services Immunities Act that, for the most part, shields any foreign government from being sued by American citizens. In fact, Saudi Arabia invoked it in the case that the federal judge dismissed. 

But there have been exceptions involving terrorism, notably against Chile and Taiwan, both of which involved state-sanctioned assassinations, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. 

The families of Americans killed in terror attacks in Israel from 2002 to 2004 won a lawsuit against the Palestinian Authority and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for their involvement. The Palestinian Authority and PLO have appealed the decision, arguing the attacks were directed at Israelis, not Americans.

The argument of Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir is different, falling in line more with the Obama administration and Los Angeles Times editorial board.   

"What [Congress is] ... doing is stripping the principle of sovereign immunities which would turn the world for international law into the law of the jungle," said Mr. Al-Jubeir in a statement 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." 

White House Press Secretary Joshua Earnest said the Obama administration's opposition to the legislation is in the same vein.  

"It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if countries were – other countries were to adopt a similar law," he said in a press briefing April 18, adding any "concerns" against Saudi Arabia should be addressed through diplomacy.  

Mr. Earnest does not expect the president to sign the legislation, and the House has not acted on it, according to the Associated Press.  

Steve Vladeck, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law that specializes in counterterrorism, tells The Christian Science Monitor that one late amendment to the bill could minimize its effectiveness. The amendment would give the government the ability to put any lawsuit on hold, especially for national security or diplomacy reasons, he says.  

"One of the really interesting questions now that will come out in the House is: Will that provision have the effect of watering down the bill to the point of toothlessness?" asks Professor Vladeck. "In some sense it's the government saying, 'Don't worry. It's not going to be so bad.' " 

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