With an unusual acknowledgment of a mistake in a high-profile case, a federal appeals court in New York City has restored Saudi Arabia as a defendant in a lawsuit brought by thousands of 9/11 victims, their families and others.
For a decade, the 9/11 plaintiffs have asserted that the desert kingdom bankrolled al Qaeda before the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Now, they can once again pursue their claim in court.
The ruling also restores as a defendant the Saudi High Commission for Relief of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a government agency the plaintiffs contend funneled tens of millions of dollars to terrorist fighters across the globe.
Former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who co-chaired Congress’ joint inquiry into the attacks, hailed Thursday’s ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan.
“This is a very significant breakthrough that could collapse the dam of cover-up which has kept information on the Saudis involvement from the American people,” Graham told BrowardBulldog.org.
Saudi Arabia, which has denied the lawsuit’s accusations as “categorically false,” had been dismissed from the sprawling lawsuit in 2005 on grounds of sovereign immunity, despite exceptions to that protection regarding acts of terrorism.
‘ERROR OF LAW’
The 16-page order issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals is a labyrinth of legal arguments. Its essence, however, is that the court’s own conflicting rulings about how to apply the law in different 9/11 lawsuits led to an “error of law” by a lower federal court judge in New York, George B. Daniels, who wrongly let the Saudis off the hook for potentially billions of dollars in civil damages.
The rejuvenated case now goes back to Judge Daniels for further proceedings, the order said.
“We are very happy about the news and cautiously optimistic,” said 9/11 survivor Sharon Premoli, who was pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
“The appellate court’s decision is something I feared I would never see in my lifetime,” said Terry Strada, whose husband, Tom, died in the North Tower on 9/11. “Our group, 9/11 Families United for Justice Against Terrorism, remains committed in our fight for the truth and justice. Only then will we be able to protect ourselves from future terrorist attacks and hold those accountable for the death, destruction, pain and suffering inflicted on us 13 years ago.”
But Michael K. Kellogg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who represents Saudi Arabia, called the decision “contrary to settled law.”
“It is extremely unfortunate and burdensome that a sovereign nation and ally of the United States will continue to have to litigate this matter more than 10 years after it was filed. The government of Saudi Arabia will seek further review of this erroneous decision,” Kellogg said.
“It is also important to recognize that the Second Circuit’s decision has nothing to do with the facts of the case and does not find that the plaintiffs’ allegations are meritorious or even plausible.”
The ruling comes amid a parallel push in Congress to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which would ensure that victims of terrorism on U.S. soil have the opportunity to hold its foreign sponsors accountable in U.S. courts.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, introduced JASTA in the Senate in September. Co-sponsors include seven Democrats and five Republicans. An identical bill in the House has similar drawn similar bipartisan support.
When Schumer introduced the bill, he said JASTA was needed “due to flawed court decisions that have deprived victims of terrorism on American soil, including those injured by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, of their day in court.”
Previously, Schumer said, “Substantial evidence establishes (the Saudi defendants) had provided funding and sponsorship to al Qaeda without which it could not have carried out the attacks.”
In a related development earlier this month on Capitol Hill, two congressmen, Walter B. Jones, R-N.C. and Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., introduced a resolution urging President Obama to declassify 28 pages that were withheld from the public by President George W. Bush when Congress issued the Joint Inquiry’s report in late 2002.
The missing pages deal with “specific sources of foreign support” for the 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudi nationals.
The two congressmen, who recently read the blacked out pages, told the New York Post that they were “absolutely shocked” at the level of foreign state involvement in the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Former Sen. Graham, who helped write the censored 28 pages, has long championed their release as necessary to the public’s understanding of how the hijackers managed to pull off their murderous plot and who helped to finance it. He says the information should never have been kept hidden because its release poses no threat to national security.
“Without being able to go into details, I can tell you that there are some other channels that are also beginning to move on the 28 pages,” Graham said Friday. “I feel more optimistic about their release in the near term than I have in a dozen years.”
Meanwhile, Fort Lauderdale U.S. District Judge William Zloch is considering whether to order the FBI to conduct a more thorough search of its records regarding its once-secret investigation of apparent ties between Saudis living in a gated community near Sarasota and the 9/11 hijackers, including ringleader Mohamed Atta.
BrowardBulldog.org disclosed the existence of the investigation two years ago. Graham and others have said the FBI told neither Congress nor the subsequent 9/11 Commission about its Sarasota probe.
Abdulaziz al-Hijji and his family hastily departed their upscale home, and left the country, about two weeks prior to the terrorist attacks. Authorities summoned by neighbors later found they’d left behind cars, furniture, clothing, food and other personal items.
The FBI has said publicly it found no evidence connecting the al Hijjis to the hijackers or the 9/11 plot.
BrowardBulldog.org filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Justice Department and the FBI last year after its requests for records about the matter were denied. The Miami Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune have asked the judge to intervene in support of the Bulldog’s efforts.
Last spring, the FBI unexpectedly released 31 pages to the Bulldog that included an April 2002 report that said agents found “many connections” between the al-Hijjis and “individuals associated with the terrorist attacks.”
The FBI heavily redacted the reports, citing national security. Still, the reports disclose that those connections included a “family member” who “was a flight student at Huffman Aviation” — the Venice Municipal Airport flight school where Mohamed Atta and co-conspirator Marwan al-Shehhi trained.
Atta piloted the American Airlines jetliner that slammed into the North Tower; al-Shehhi was at the controls of the United Airlines plane that rammed the South Tower.