So you want to sue Saudi Arabia

By Sarah Sidlow

Congress, it seems, has finally done something. In one of the most sweeping bipartisan efforts in recent memory, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill allowing victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role the country may have played.

Families of 9/11 victims cheered from the chamber as the House approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). President Obama, probably, face-palmed. In fact, he attempted to veto the legislation, but was overturned in dramatic fashion: a 97-to-1 vote in the Senate and a 348-to-77 vote in the House.

Obama denounced the outcome, accusing lawmakers of being swayed by the incoming election—afraid of appearing unsympathetic to surviving 9/11 families, particularly in such a hot political moment.

He said the yea-sayers missed a crucial opportunity to understand and analyze the possible implications of their vote.

Case in point: The “Arab Project in Iraq” lobby group, which has already requested parliament to prepare a lawsuit seeking compensation from the U.S. for the invasion of Iraq.

And some warn this is only the beginning.

Former Republican Senator Larry Pressler expressed a similar fear:

“As a Vietnam combat veteran, I could almost certainly be sued by the Vietnamese government or by a Vietnamese citizen,” Pressler wrote in The Hill. “The Gulf War, Iraq War and Afghanistan War veterans are more protected by constitutional congressional actions, but we Vietnam veterans will be raw targets if Americans can sue Saudi Arabia.”

And then there’s the ethical question: suing Saudi Arabia won’t un-do 9/11, opponents argue, and there’s a difference between justice and revenge.

(Remember what Rachel Dawes told Bruce Wayne? “Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself
feel better.”)

But JASTA supporters are unmoved. They claim the United States doesn’t engage in terrorist activities, so there’s no need to worry about possible legal retaliation on that front.

Moreover, they remind the nation that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. And, while the commission investigating the plot claimed they couldn’t quite pin it on the Saudi government, they left open the possibility that some Saudi officials may have played roles in the attack, like possibly funding Al-Qaeda.

They also argue that this law was seven years in the making, not some flash decision, and all of the possible ramifications have been weighed, thank you very much.

The first U.S. lawsuit has already been filed—by Stephanie Ross DeSimone, who was widowed when her husband, a Navy commander was killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. The lawsuit is also filed on behalf of the couple’s daughter, who never met her father.

For many, JASTA is a lasting symbol that America will never forget, and never back down. Fifteen years after 9/11, JASTA represents a promise made good by America to her people—that American spirit will always rise above party politics, and those responsible will be brought to justice.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has warned that it might be forced to sell off U.S. assets—to the tune of $750 billion in Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S.—to avoid impending sanctions, which could be taken from them once the lawsuits get rolling. That could majorly destabilize the U.S. dollar. So, there’s that.

Reach Dayton City Paper forum moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

Poison pill for international law

By Patrick Bittner

On one cool fall morning 15 years ago, as children were heading to school, business people were heading to the office, and taxi drivers were changing shifts, the entire world unraveled and reality became the unthinkable. Two thousand nine hundred and six people perished during the Sept. 11 attacks perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of which were citizens of Saudi Arabia. While the kingdom officially denounces the attacks and the impact of its citizens on executing it, many people, particularly families of victims of the attacks, felt that the Saudi government was involved in financing and aiding the group of terrorists called Al-Qaeda. So, as senators sometimes do, John Cornyn and Chuck Schumer drafted a piece of legislation to address this issue.  

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is designed in such a way that while it does not directly name Saudi Arabia; it is intended to allow United States citizens to sue, in American Civil court, any state that is deemed to have aided an act of terrorism. Previously, a country had to be designated by the United States Department of State as a state sponsor of terrorism to be covered under the jurisdiction of a U.S. court, but the JASTA allows any government or governmental officials to be brought to suit for sponsoring any terrorist activities.

According to the Senate’s records, the bill, originally introduced to the Senate in 2009 and reintroduced on Sept. 16, 2015, passed the Senate on May 17, 2016. It then took another four months to be passed in the House of Representatives, which it was on Sept. 9, 2016. It then gained national attention when, on Sept. 23, it was vetoed by President Obama. And on Sept. 28, it was overridden in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, becoming the first bill to be overridden in President Obama’s tenure. What is troubling about the now law is not its intent but rather the implications it carries for national and international law.

While written to provide closure and compensation to the families of victims of terrible and unthinkable terrorist attacks, the law has ramifications that run much deeper than the original intent. If private United States citizens are able to sue the governments of countries that are alleged to have sponsored a terrorist attack or organization, a precedent will be set that would allow private United States citizens and the government of the United States to be sued for similar incidents. While we often see ourselves as the nation of good and use our vast and honorable armed forces to execute that good, we have strayed off course in the past. Drone strikes and military aid to nations are likely to be construed as acts of terror by the United States government, and if laws similar to JASTA are passed in countries affected by these issues, U.S. government employees, service members, and statesmen will be targeted in lawsuits.

The passage of the bill in both houses of Congress then the subsequent veto override is a gross example of negligent decision-making in a Congress that is known for making poor decisions, when they make any decisions at all.  The idea of bringing justice and peace to the families of victims of the greatest act of terror in history is noble but the manner in which this piece of legislation seeks to accomplish that goal is truly the worst possible way it could be done. Putting U.S. citizens at risk of being successfully litigated by citizens of foreign nations for terror acts is too great of a cost to pay to do the same to other nations.  If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia truly sponsored Al-Qaeda, whether overtly or covertly, the proper channels should be followed to bring those actors to justice.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act is a poison pill for the fledgling field of international law. While it would seem that it is a prime example of functional international law, it is actually the furthest from it. Rather than settling these matters in an unbiased international court or tribunal, Congress has deemed itself more important than the global community and placed the U.S. federal courts as higher than any foreign government or international organization. The future of the global community relies on making, entering into, and respecting international agreements, and the JASTA destroys the good faith reputation of the United States of America.

While I thank Congress for wanting to help the families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it is foolish to think that this law is the best way to accomplish that.

Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Bittner at PatrickBittner@DaytonCityPaper.com.

State-sponsored hate

by Don Hurst

Victims of the 9/11 attacks should be allowed to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for damages. American courts already hear private lawsuits against our North American Free Trade Act partners, Canada and Mexico. Despite winning the dubious title of most sued country in the world, Canada still plays nice with us.

The government of Saudi Arabia may not have any official connections to Al-Qaeda. Recently, declassified pages of the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report show no proof of top-level command and control of the 9/11 attacks. However, investigators discovered troubling relationships with rogue elements of the Saudi royal family and elements of the government.

Page 417 of the report states that the chief financier of the 9/11 attacks received substantial payments from members of the Saudi royal family. Page 415 describes the material and operational support the 9/11 hijackers received from alleged Saudi intelligence officials. Captured Al-Qaeda leaders even possessed phone numbers connected to the royal family and their security teams. There are still 28 pages of redacted material, much of it dealing with the Saudis.

The Congressional Research Office reports on Saudi terror financing, by Christopher Blanchard, describe the decades-long relationship between the kingdom and terrorism. Since the 1960s, the Saudi royal family has openly financed extremist groups operating in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. The government and Saudi private citizens have donated from $80 to $100 million a year to known extremist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, with another $2 to $3 billion a year for promoting religious causes abroad.

Officials from Saudi Arabia even admit their donations funded suicide bombings in the past. The government has known for decades that significant portions of money donated to Islamic charities gets siphoned away to terror groups to pay for weapons, personnel, and indoctrination courses. Yet, they have done little or nothing to separate legitimate charities from the ones serving as fronts for terror groups.

Popular “religious causes abroad” include anything that promotes the Wahhabism sect of Islam. Wahhabism is a particularly ultra-conservative offshoot of Sunni Islam that the Saudi government officially sponsors. It is also the sect to which ISIS claims ideological allegiance. It’s a bastardized version of Islam that says Muslims must kill all Jews. It says sex out of wedlock is a sin unless it’s sex with a female slave. It says it’s OK to throw homosexuals off roofs and to execute rape victims.

Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi religious scholars have legitimized mass murder and brutal jihad to millions of children since the 1970s. There should be consequences for propagating this much chaos and death. Saudi Arabia does not get to douse the world with gasoline, light the match, and pretend like they have no responsibility for the fires that burn.

While Saudis funded the spread of violence and hatred towards non-Muslims, they also relied on the USA to do most of their heavy lifting. The Saudis have used our dependence on oil to pressure us to include ourselves in regional disputes. They fund schools that teach children it’s permissible to kill infidels, while hiding behind the military of infidels.

These connections may prove purely circumstantial in a court of law, but let the facts be heard in front of a judge and jury. The governments of the United States and Saudi Arabia have left victims with little option other than a lawsuit. The kingdom has vehemently denied any involvement. The only concession it made was to pass slightly stricter terror financing laws, which they enforce sporadically. Well-known terrorist financiers live large in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis threaten to pull out $750 billion in assets from our country, destabilizing the dollar and the economy. They won’t do it. We’re at a stage where they need us more than we need them. We don’t use as much of their oil, but they need us to protect them from their well-armed neighbors who blame the Saudis for encouraging chaos.

Opponents worry this legislation opens the U.S. to similar lawsuits. Our government already pays out settlements to civilians who are accidentally killed in military operations. The international justice system sees the difference between collateral damage and the intentional targeting of over 3,000 non-combatants.

This legislation is not about vengeance. It won’t restore the limbs of the injured or bring back the dead. What it will do is force the facts of terror financing out in the open. Let the plaintiffs argue their cases. If the facts don’t support Saudi government involvement, then we can finally put these doubts behind us and move forward together. If Saudi government officials did support terrorism, then the government needs to be accountable. Perhaps the scrutiny will ensure tougher terror financing laws and stop future attacks.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at DonHurst@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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