Obama out of sync with own party on 9/11 bill

Joan Vennochi
Joan Vennochi

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are now backing a bill that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia – just as President Obama leaves for Saudi Arabia and the Saudi government warns it will sell off $750 billion in American assets if the measure becomes law.

That’s awkward. According to The New York Times, the Obama administration is lobbying against the bill, which would hold the Saudi government legally responsible for any complicity in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Also awkward is the fact the bill has unusually broad bipartisan support.

Primary politics play a role. New York voters are heading to the polls soon, so it makes political sense for Clinton and Sanders to side with New Yorkers, whose sympathies naturally lie with 9/11 victims.

On the Republican side, presidential politics have been crashing into American foreign policy. But now the two Democrats battling each other are putting their own president on the hot seat at a sensitive time. Yet even without the obvious grandstanding potential of this matter, it still makes sense for Obama to side with the 9/11 families’ quest for truth and accountability. Instead the White House is putting out word the president would likely veto the bill if it’s passed by Congress.

The president, after all, recently directed some tough talk toward the Saudis and other Arab allies. Yet according to the Times, Obama administration officials have been warning lawmakers of “diplomatic and economic fallout from the legislation.”

But as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a cosponsor of the bill, said in a statement, “If Saudi Arabia participated in terrorism, of course they should be able to be sued. This bill would allow a suit to go forward and victims of terrorism to go to court to determine if the Saudi government participated in terrorist acts. If the Saudis did, they should pay a price.” Under current law, foreign nations have some immunity in US courts. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would take such immunity away if a nation is complicit in terrorist attacks that kill Americans on US soil.

The 9/11 Commission found no evidence the Saudi government were involved in the attack. But suspicion lingers. Families of 9/11 victims have been trying to get the Obama administration to declassify 28 pages of a 2002 congressional report on the attack, which supposedly outline Saudi Arabia’s role.

Representative Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts has been working with some of those families. Of Saudi Arabia’s threat to sell off hundreds of billions of American assets, Lynch said, “I don’t see any other way to describe it other than extortion. . . . They have a very poor view of the administration and Congress if they think we would respond to this kind of economic pressure.”

And when the two Democrats running for president see it that way too? Well, that’s tough for Obama.

Twitter: @Joan_Vennochi.