The New York primary couldn’t have come at a less convenient time for the Obama administration. Recently, the do-nothing Senate stumbled across a legislative endeavor that boasts bipartisan appeal and great diplomatic risk: allowing victims of 9/11 to sue the Saudi government. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would give American citizens the right to sue sovereign nations for funding terrorists attacks on U.S. soil. The bill was introduced by Texas Republican John Cornyn and New York Democrat Chuck Schumer, and brings together legislators as diverse as Ted Cruz and Al Franken. One group that isn’t so enthused about the legislation: the Saudi government.
The kingdom has threatened to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets if the bill passes Congress, the New York Times reported last week. Such a sell-off would spur turmoil in global markets and destabilize the dollar, effects that would directly undermine Saudi Arabia’s own economic interests. But the Obama administration is taking the Saudis’ fury seriously nonetheless, and has expended considerable energy trying to stifle the Senate bill. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel in February that the bill would put America in legal jeopardy — if the U.S. weakens sovereign immunity provisions, other countries could do the same, opening the door to new lawsuits against America’s government, corporations, and citizens.
For most of the campaign, neither Democratic presidential candidate felt the need to take a position on the bill. But 9/11 families are considerably more popular than the Saudi government in New York State, so, days before the Empire State’s crucial primary vote, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have come out in favor of the bill.
“If there are people or institutions or governments who should be held accountable, that should be part of the bringing to justice anyone or any state that had any role in the horrors of 9/11,” Clinton told WCBS 880 in an interview Monday. “We’ve got to continue to seek the justice that the people who are suing deserve to have.”
Bernie Sanders offered his support for the legislation on Monday’s edition of CBS This Morning: “It is about suing any government, not just Saudi Arabia, that may have been involved in terrorism,” he told the program. “Getting the truth out about the role Saudi Arabia may be playing is a good and right thing.”
Suspicions of Saudi complicity in the 9/11 attacks centers on the 28 redacted pages of the 9/11 commission’s report. Those pages are widely said to implicate Saudi elites in the financing of the attacks. Last year, Massachusetts congressman Stephen Lynch told The New Yorker that the document offers direct evidence of “complicity on the part of certain Saudi individuals and entities in Al Qaeda’s attack on America.” In 2012, former senator Bob Graham of Florida, who headed the 9/11 inquiry, wrote in an affidavit, “I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.” A recent 60 Minutes special on the 28 pages has generated a new wave of support for their declassification.
Donald Trump directed attention to the issue back in February, when he told the Fox & Friends gang, “Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”
On Wednesday, President Obama will arrive in Riyadh for meetings with King Salman and other Saudi officials. His would-be successors just made those meetings a little bit more tense.