Senate Passes Bill Allowing Families of 9/11 Victims to Sue Saudi Arabia

The Senate defied a veto threat by the Obama administration Tuesday, passing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which if signed into law would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center that killed almost 3,000 people.

The bipartisan effort, spearheaded by New York Sen. Charles Schumer and Texas Sen. John Coryn, would prevent foreign governments from invoking sovereign immunity, the longstanding legal doctrine that says states are immune from civil suits or criminal prosecution. A previous lawsuit filed on behalf of the victims of 9/11 was thrown out in 2015, when a judge found no basis with which to assert jurisdiction over the Saudi government.

“For the sake of the families, I want to make clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that every entity, including foreign states, will be held accountable if they are found to be sponsors of the heinous act of 9/11,” Sen. Schumer said of the bill, adding it’s imperative for families “to pursue some small measure of justice.”

“If the Saudis did not participate in this terrorism, they have nothing to fear about going to court,” Schumer added. “If they did, they should be held accountable.”

The bill’s passage in the Senate comes as the Obama administration weighs whether to release 28 pages of classified material from the 9/11 Commission Report, which allegedly contain evidence that Saudi officials provided material support to terrorists. In addition, the Daily Beast reports that a federal judge in Florida is considering the release of 80,000 classified pages that may expose deeper ties between Saudi officials and the perpetrators of the 9/11 terror attacks.

In a statement, family members said they were pleased with the bill’s passage. “This legislation reaffirms the commonsense principle that no person, entity or government enjoys blanket immunity from legal responsibility for participation in a terrorist attack that takes lives or causes injury inside the United States of America,” the statement read.

The Obama administration continues to lobby against the bill, arguing that the repercussions would be detrimental to the U.S.; Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir warned in March that his government may sell up to $750 billion in U.S. securities if the bill is signed into law. White House officials have also warned the bill could open the door for similar lawsuits against the United States.

“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake, and it is one that has more significant consequences for the United States than any other country,” White House Press Secretary told reporters in April.

In separate statements, Schumer and the families said the threat of Saudi Arabia selling U.S. securities in retaliation was “hollow.”

“As for the perceived threat of reciprocal suits against the U.S. or its representatives,” the statement by the families of 9/11 victims read, “a key distinction between what JASTA addresses and what some claim foreign states may threaten in return is that the United States does not provide support to terrorist organizations to target civilian populations.”

The White House has promised to veto the bill if it passes through the House. But Schumer is confident Congress has enough votes to override the Obama administration in the case of a showdown. "We don't think their arguments stand up," Schumer said Tuesday.

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