Washington-U.S. Senate passed legislation on Tuesday that would allow families of Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia’s government for damages, setting up a potential showdown with the White House, which has threatened a veto.
The Justice against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) bill was sponsored by Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas and is expected to be passed by the House of Representatives as well.
The bill represents a clear challenge for the White House and a great risk for the U.S. – Saudi relations and the Saudi investments in the United States.
“This legislation would change long-standing, international law regarding sovereign immunity,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“The president of the United States continues to harbor serious concerns that this legislation would make the United States vulnerable in other court systems around the world.”
Earnest argued the bill’s impact goes beyond whether the Saudis sell off assets held in the United States.
“It could put the United States, and our taxpayers, and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk, if other countries were to adopt a similar law.”
He added that it is “difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it’s currently drafted.”
For his part, Spokesperson for the United States Department of State John Kirby rejected the legislation of the bill and expressed his concern from its repercussions.
“Our relation with Saudi Arabia is close and strong, and we have benefited from the experience of the Kingdom’s leaders regarding Syrian crisis and other regional cases,” Kirby said.
He also stressed the major role Saudi Arabia plays in fighting terrorism, confirming that passing the bill will not prevent U.S.A. from cooperating with the Kingdom in combatting terrorism.
In a common matter, the bill has been approved by a large number of the Republican Senate members, including Senator Harry Reid, which indicates the division inside the Democratic Party as in between democratic in the Congress and Obama’s democratic administration’s stance.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a JASTA co-sponsor, said the bill is overdue.
“Today the Senate has spoken loudly and unanimously that the families of victims of terrorist attacks should be able to hold the perpetrators, even if it’s a country, a nation, accountable,” Schumer told a news conference.
“These courts are following what we believe is a nonsensical reading of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act,” Schumer said Tuesday.
“The fact that a foreign government may have aided and abetted terrorism is infuriating to the families if justice is not done.”
He confirmed that the U.S. Congress could challenge and override the presidential veto from Obama’s administration if it decided to object the bill and return it to the congress.
Relatives of Sept. 11 victims have urged the Obama administration to declassify and release U.S. intelligence that allegedly discusses possible Saudi involvement in the attacks.
Passage of the bill sends the message that the United States “will combat terrorism with every tool we have available, and that the victims of terrorist attacks in our country should have every means at their disposal to seek justice,” Senator John Cornyn said.
He said JASTA does not target the Saudis, although he alluded to a still-classified section of a report on the Sept. 11 attacks that Saudi critics say might implicate Riyadh.
“We have yet to see the 28 pages that have not been yet released about the 9/11 report and that may well be instructive,” Cornyn said at the news conference.
Other lawmakers who have seen the 28 pages have said releasing them would quiet such rumors.
Cornyn said it was up to the court to decide whether the Saudis were liable. “I don’t believe that this will be destructive of the relationship that we have with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said.