Senate bill to let 9/11 families sue Saudis might get vote next week

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (left), and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Capitol Hill in Washington this week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. (left), and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, on Capitol Hill in Washington this week. AP

A Senate bill that would allow U.S. citizens to sue countries that funded terrorism on American soil has roiled the White House and the Saudi kingdom, which is threatening to pull $750 billion out of the U.S.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is close to a Senate vote, and the mood on Capitol Hill appears to be to send a strong signal to countries that are suspected of financing terrorism.

“This would help stop the flow of money to terrorist groups,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “This is really a no-brainer, in my view.”

The families of 9/11 victims, he said, “should not be denied justice.”

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, easily approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, does not mention Saudi Arabia but it has quickly become known as the “Saudi bill” because of long-standing suspicions about how the Sept. 11 hijackers were financed. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

The bill gained momentum just as President Barack Obama was preparing to go to Saudi Arabia on a visit, and the president has said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

“If we open up the possibility that individuals and the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries,” he told CBS’s Charlie Rose.

Tensions over the bill have been heightened by pressure on the Obama administration to declassify 28 pages of a congressional report that reportedly detail Saudi financing of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Towers.

“The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier,” said former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who co-chaired the congressional committee that produced the report.


After CBS’s “60 Minutes” news show devoted a segment last week to the 28 pages, Graham said Obama told him that the section, which was classified by the FBI, might be released in the next two months.

Anticipating the likely Senate passage of the bill, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir warned U.S. lawmakers in a visit to Washington last month that the kingdom would sell $750 billion in treasury securities and other U.S. assets if the bill passed.

Cornyn, however, dismissed Jubeir’s warning, telling reporters, “I think it’s an empty threat.” The assets would be bought by other countries or institutions, having no impact on the U.S. economy, he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has put a hold on the bill out of concern that the liability may be used against the U.S. itself. “I want to make sure that anything we do doesn’t come to bite us,” he said this week.

Cornyn told Texas reporters Wednesday he was optimistic that he could work out Graham’s concerns and that he expected the bill to be on the floor for a vote next week.

Democrats are supportive of the bill despite the White House opposition, with Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., coming out in favor of it.