If, as expected, the House and Senate vote to override President Obama's veto of a bill that would make it easier to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for acts of terrorism, the families and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks will be handed a powerful new legal tool.
And if the plaintiffs prevail, the Saudis could face damages of up to $100 billion.
That might explain why the Saudis have been lobbying on Capitol Hill intensively ever since the House unanimously passed the measure on Sept. 19, following a unanimous vote in the Senate on May 17. Support for the measure is high, on both sides of the aisle, and both houses of Congress are expected to override the president's veto this week, the first such vote in the Obama presidency.
Obama vetoed the bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, on Friday.
"We want accountability," said Terry Strada, a northern New Jersey mother whose husband, Tom, died in the World Trade Center. She leads a group of 9/11 family members and survivors lobbying members of Congress on the bill. "I want the world to know who was behind the financing and promoting of al-Qaeda and all the hatred and murder. I want the truth. I think the truth would be the first thing, our mission."
The bill is an outgrowth of lawsuits filed more than a decade ago alleging that the government of Saudi Arabia played an instrumental role in nurturing al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and later in the Balkans by funding Islamist charities that in turn bankrolled terrorists worldwide, including Osama bin Laden.
Much of the litigation has been handled and financed by the Center City law firm of Cozen O'Connor, which also has played an instrumental role on Capitol Hill pushing for enactment of JASTA. Lobbyists for Saudi Arabia have fanned out across Capitol Hill this week urging members not to override. Earlier this year, Obama administration officials warned lawmakers that the Saudis would withdraw more than $750 million of assets in the U.S. if the bill were to pass.
In his veto message, the president said he opposed the measure because it would expose American officials and military personnel to lawsuits abroad and complicate relations with U.S. allies, a claim denied by backers of the legislation.
Saudi Arabia has long denied any responsibility for the 9/11 terrorism and has pointed to language in a report by the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the attacks, that there is no evidence that the Saudi government "as an institution" or senior Saudi officials funded al-Qaeda. It added, however, that there was a "likelihood" government-sponsored charities had provided financial support.
The bill would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which since 1976 has established broad immunity for foreign governments against lawsuits by U.S. citizens. The law emerged from a centuries-old principle that lawsuits by individual citizens complicate and interfere with relations between sovereign nations. But the law also includes exceptions that permit such lawsuits to go forward under narrow circumstances.
How those exceptions are interpreted is critical to the outcome of the legal battle over Saudi Arabia's alleged role in the 9/11 attacks. After a series of appellate and trial court decisions dismissing Saudi Arabia as a defendant and then later restoring it, federal District Court Judge George Daniels, ruling in Manhattan last October, again dismissed the Saudis.
Daniels found that Saudi Arabia could not be sued because the entire terrorist plot would have had to take place in the U.S. in order for the kingdom to have exposure. Since much of the planning and funding for the attacks took place outside the U.S., Daniels concluded, U.S. courts did not have jurisdiction.
JASTA removes that legal defense by making it clear that not all of the illegal conduct need occur here. It also clarifies that foreign governments that provide support for terrorists but do not directly participate in their violent acts also have exposure for such aiding and abetting behavior.
"This law makes clear that U.S. courts have jurisdiction over exactly this kind of case," said Stephen Cozen, name partner of Cozen O'Connor and a key player in the litigation. "It takes away all of the arguments that the kingdom has been making."