Why questions about 9/11 may dog Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia

A bipartisan group of lawmakers are championing a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government in US courts, reigniting a debate about a secret congressional report.

Carolyn Kaster/AP/File
In this Jan. 27, 2015 file photo, President Barack Obama meets Saudi Arabia King Salman bin Abdul Aziz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Mr. Obama's trip on Wednesday could turn more contentious as Congress pushes for a bill to allow Americans to sue governments found responsible for terrorist attacks on American soil.

As President Obama prepares for a trip to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, the White House has found itself enmeshed in a thorny question that dates to the previous administration’s earliest days — did the Saudi government have any responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks?

Some families of victims of the 9/11 attacks and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are championing a bill that would let Americans sue foreign countries found to be responsible for terrorist attacks on US soil.

“If Saudi Arabia participated in terrorism, of course they should be able to be sued," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, a cosponsor of the measure, said Monday. “This bill would allow a suit to go forward and victims of terrorism to go to court to determine if the Saudi government participated in terrorist acts. If the Saudis did, they should pay a price.”

But as negotiations continue in Congress, Saudi Arabia has hit back, saying that if those congressional efforts are used to hold its government responsible for the attacks, the Saudis will sell off $750 billion in US Treasury securities and other American assets.

The government has long maintained that it held no responsibility for the attacks and actively shared intelligence with the US, but some victims believe the Saudis played a role in the attacks, in which 15 of the 19 people responsible were Saudi.

Along with new questions about 28 pages of the 2002 Congressional report on 9/11 that remain classified, the debate has complicated Mr. Obama’s visit, which is expected to tackle a number of foreign policy issues, including a civil war in neighboring Yemen.

The White House and US State Department have stepped up their efforts in lobbying against the bill. On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters the effort would harm international sovereignty and put the US at “significant risk” if other countries introduced similar laws.

"It's difficult to imagine a scenario where the president would sign it," he said, adding that he couldn’t say whether the bill or the 9/11 Commission’s report would come up during the president’s trip. However, he added, “the fact that it’s been in the news more recently might change that equation.”

Obama’s trip to Riyadh — which follows recent visits by Secretary of State John Kerry and House Speaker Paul Ryan — has already been complicated by the president’s apparent reference to the Saudis and other Gulf and European nations as “free riders” in a recent interview in The Atlantic.

His comments that the countries were not “carry[ing] their weight” as international allies prompted an unusually direct response from Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, who previously served as his country’s ambassador to Washington, though he doesn’t currently hold an official position in the country’s leadership.

“No, Mr. Obama, we are not ‘free riders’" he wrote in an open letter in the English-language Arab News. Citing several instances of cooperation between the two governments, including in the wake of nuclear deal with Iran and in sharing intelligence, he added, “now, you throw us a curve ball.”

In its report, the 9/11 Commission said that it “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” the attacks. The Saudis have said that they would welcome the release of the classified 28 pages. 

But former Senator Bob Graham (D) of Florida, who has long pushed for the remaining pages to be declassified, said in a "60 Minutes" interview last weekend that he was “deeply disturbed by the amount of material that has been censored by this report.”

Mr. Earnest declined to say whether Obama had read the 28 pages. The White House has said the Director of National Intelligence hopes to complete the review process to declassify the pages by the end of the year, NBC reports.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers have been pushing for further action to clarify the Saudi government’s role. Victims’ families have previously attempted to bring the issue to US courts, but have been blocked after Saudi Arabia invoked its sovereign immunity granted to countries under current laws.

“[The bill] makes minor adjustments to our laws that would clarify the ability of Americans attacked on US soil to get justice from those who have sponsored that terrorist attack," Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, the bill’s sponsor, told NBC.

On the presidential campaign trail, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont also aligned themselves with the bipartisan bill, which boasts Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas as a cosponsor.

Senator Cornyn also dismissed the warning by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last month that the country would sell $750 billion in US assets if the measure becomes law, CNN reports.

“It seems overly defensive to me and I doubt they can do it," he said on Monday.  “I don't think we should let foreign countries dictate the domestic policy of the United States so, no, it doesn't bother me at all.”

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