Let Survivors of 9/11 Victims Have Their Day in Court

Saudi Arabia may have just lost the American presidential election, but its lobbying interests are alive and well in the U.S. Congress.

The Saudis, who are said to have financed as much as a fifth of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, didn’t prevail there, but they continue to work at the highest levels in Washington to assert their will and scuttle American initiatives.

Last year, for example, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, which allows American citizens to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for people and property lost in the 9/11 attacks. Fourteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and American officials have long suspected the government knew about and perhaps even financially assisted the operation.

Specifically, JASTA creates a narrow exception to the U.S. law that grants foreign governments immunity from jurisdiction by U.S. courts. It authorizes federal courts to hear civil claims against foreign states for physical injury to a person or property or death that occurs inside the U.S. because of an act of international terrorism or damages caused by an official, agent or employee of a foreign state acting within the scope of that employment.

The legislation, introduced in 2015 by senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Obama in September. Congress then overrode the veto -- 348-77 in the House and 97-1 with only Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada voting against.

President Donald Trump supports the legislation, and the Saudis already are coming to understand that their relationship with the new administration won’t be as cozy as it was with the present group.

So, before power changes hands, the Saudis’ allies in the Senate -- Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz. -- are pushing a measure that critics say would effectively gut JASTA before any of the survivors of 9/11 victims ever have their day in court.

Graham, McCain, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who also supports the measure, propose changing the law to say foreign governments could be held liable for terrorist attacks only “if they knowingly engage with a terrorist organization directly or indirectly, including financing,” Graham said.

This, of course, would require plaintiffs to prove the Saudi government’s connection to the 9/11 terrorists, which would require, among other things, access to sensitive intelligence and make the process longer and more expensive.

The senators argue that the law, as written, would produce retaliatory suits against the United States. They say moving the goalposts will reduce that likelihood and balance concerns raised by others in Congress.

“If we don’t make this change, here’s what I fear -- that other countries will pass laws like this, and they will say that the United States is liable for engaging in drone attacks or other activity in the war on terror and haul us into court as a nation,” Graham said. “I don’t want any nation state, including ours, to be sued for a discretionary act unless that discretionary act encompasses knowingly engaging in the financing or sponsoring of terrorism whether directly or indirectly.”

The problem is that these concerns were aired during the debate over the legislation. Congress has ruled on this question, and there is no sign the people of the country want the legislation watered down. Their representatives voted overwhelmingly to enact the law, then by even wider margins to override the president’s veto. The incoming president supports it as is, and 9/11 survivor groups are outraged.

Terry Strada, chairman of 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, said Graham met with survivors in April and told them “he supported our cause 100 percent.” Now, Strada says, “Senator Graham is stabbing the 9/11 families in the back. He and Sen. McCain are seeking to torpedo JASTA by imposing changes demanded by Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists. We have reviewed the language, and it is an absolute betrayal.”

A congressional aide familiar with the changes told Politico the provision was “a giveaway to K Street lobbyists and the Saudis.”

One thing that came through loud and clear in the results of Nov. 8 is that voters are ready to put America first. That means, when it comes to paying the piper for the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, they want American interests to come before those of the Saudis or their allies on K Street.

Members on both sides of the Capitol have pledged to keep an eye on the legislation see if the opponents’ arguments materialize and adjust if necessary. But it hasn’t even had time to work. This ought not be up to the Saudis, their high-powered K Street friends or their minions in the Senate.

It’s up to the American people, and the way they overwhelmingly want this handled ought to be given a chance.

Saudi Arabia may have just lost the American presidential election, but its lobbying interests are alive and well in the U.S. Congress.

The Saudis, who are said to have financed as much as a fifth of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, didn’t prevail there, but they continue to work at the highest levels in Washington to assert their will and scuttle American initiatives.

Last year, for example, Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, which allows American citizens to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for people and property lost in the 9/11 attacks. Fourteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and American officials have long suspected the government knew about and perhaps even financially assisted the operation.

Specifically, JASTA creates a narrow exception to the U.S. law that grants foreign governments immunity from jurisdiction by U.S. courts. It authorizes federal courts to hear civil claims against foreign states for physical injury to a person or property or death that occurs inside the U.S. because of an act of international terrorism or damages caused by an official, agent or employee of a foreign state acting within the scope of that employment.

The legislation, introduced in 2015 by senators John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Obama in September. Congress then overrode the veto -- 348-77 in the House and 97-1 with only Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada voting against.

President Donald Trump supports the legislation, and the Saudis already are coming to understand that their relationship with the new administration won’t be as cozy as it was with the present group.

So, before power changes hands, the Saudis’ allies in the Senate -- Sens. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz. -- are pushing a measure that critics say would effectively gut JASTA before any of the survivors of 9/11 victims ever have their day in court.

Graham, McCain, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who also supports the measure, propose changing the law to say foreign governments could be held liable for terrorist attacks only “if they knowingly engage with a terrorist organization directly or indirectly, including financing,” Graham said.

This, of course, would require plaintiffs to prove the Saudi government’s connection to the 9/11 terrorists, which would require, among other things, access to sensitive intelligence and make the process longer and more expensive.

The senators argue that the law, as written, would produce retaliatory suits against the United States. They say moving the goalposts will reduce that likelihood and balance concerns raised by others in Congress.

“If we don’t make this change, here’s what I fear -- that other countries will pass laws like this, and they will say that the United States is liable for engaging in drone attacks or other activity in the war on terror and haul us into court as a nation,” Graham said. “I don’t want any nation state, including ours, to be sued for a discretionary act unless that discretionary act encompasses knowingly engaging in the financing or sponsoring of terrorism whether directly or indirectly.”

The problem is that these concerns were aired during the debate over the legislation. Congress has ruled on this question, and there is no sign the people of the country want the legislation watered down. Their representatives voted overwhelmingly to enact the law, then by even wider margins to override the president’s veto. The incoming president supports it as is, and 9/11 survivor groups are outraged.

Terry Strada, chairman of 9/11 Families and Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, said Graham met with survivors in April and told them “he supported our cause 100 percent.” Now, Strada says, “Senator Graham is stabbing the 9/11 families in the back. He and Sen. McCain are seeking to torpedo JASTA by imposing changes demanded by Saudi Arabia’s lobbyists. We have reviewed the language, and it is an absolute betrayal.”

A congressional aide familiar with the changes told Politico the provision was “a giveaway to K Street lobbyists and the Saudis.”

One thing that came through loud and clear in the results of Nov. 8 is that voters are ready to put America first. That means, when it comes to paying the piper for the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, they want American interests to come before those of the Saudis or their allies on K Street.

Members on both sides of the Capitol have pledged to keep an eye on the legislation see if the opponents’ arguments materialize and adjust if necessary. But it hasn’t even had time to work. This ought not be up to the Saudis, their high-powered K Street friends or their minions in the Senate.

It’s up to the American people, and the way they overwhelmingly want this handled ought to be given a chance.