White House signals veto on Saudi 9/11 bill
By Jordan Fabian
The White House on Monday signaled President Obama would veto legislation to allow Americans to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for any role officials played in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“Given the long list of concerns I have expressed … it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign the bill as it's currently drafted,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Earnest argued the legislation could jeopardize U.S. citizens overseas if other countries pass reciprocal laws that remove foreign immunity in their courts.
“It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our service members and our diplomats at significant risk if other countries were to adopt a similar law,” he said.
“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake.”
The legislation drew widespread attention after Saudi officials reportedly informed the Obama administration that they would sell off $750 billion in U.S. assets if the bill became law, a threat that carries widespread economic consequences if the Saudis follow through.
Earnest appeared to strongly caution the Saudi government against taking such a step.
“A country with a modern and large economy like Saudi Arabia would not benefit from a destabilized global financial market, and neither would the United States,” he said.
The fierce debate over the legislation has bubbled up at a precarious time for Obama, who is set to land in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to meet with King Salman.
Earnest said he is not sure if Obama will raise the issue with Salman during a meeting in which the leaders are expected to discuss the Iran nuclear agreement and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"If this issue were to come up ... the potential consequences of rolling back this core principle of international law is how the president would explain our position to his counterparts," he said.
The nuclear agreement has already strained relations between Washington and Riyadh, and the 9/11 legislation could raise tensions even higher.
Saudi officials have for years denied their government had any role in the plotting of the attacks. The 9/11 Commission report said the Saudi government “as an institution” or its senior officials individually did not fund the attackers.
But there has long been speculation that lower-level officials may have been involved. And victims' families and lawmakers in both parties have pressed for the release of 28 pages of a 2002 report on the attacks that reportedly detail Saudi officials’ role in the plot.
The legislation, called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, would allow victims of terror attacks on U.S. soil to sue the governments of nations that support terrorism.
It has bipartisan support — Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) both authored the bill. They argue it would allow American citizens to recoup damages from countries that have provided financial support to groups like al Qaeda.
Earnest said Obama has "devoted significant time in office to fighting for the 9/11 families and those who have risked their lives to rebuild after 9/11."
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) both bucked Obama and backed the legislation ahead of Tuesday’s New York primary. Sanders also said he supports making the 28 pages of the 9/11 report public.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes on Monday appeared to acknowledge concerns shared by critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
He said the Saudi government paid “insufficient attention” to money flowing to extremist groups before the 9/11 attacks from wealthy Saudis.
“There was, certainly, at least kind of a insufficient attention to where all this money was going over many years from the government apparatus,” Rhodes said in an interview with former senior Obama adviser David Axelrod.
— Updated at 3:45 p.m.
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Monday, April 18, 2016
White House signals veto on Saudi 9/11 bill