“If Saudi Arabia participated in terrorism, of course they should be able to be sued,” Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said in April regarding increasing calls from Americans to unravel the truth behind the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks. But his sentiment was misleading.
Though he rhetorically supported the recent legislation allowing victims’ families to sue foreign governments, he and other lawmakers surreptitiously added an amendment to the bill to effectively gut its original intent. As theNew York Post reported, “Sen. Charles Schumer and other proponents of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act [JASTA] stuffed an amendment into the final draft allowing the attorney general and secretary of state to stop any litigation against the Saudis in its tracks.” The new section, titled “Stay of Actions Pending State Negotiations,” was added just before the vote was taken last week.
Though JASTA would remove statutory restrictions that currently impede a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia,“Schumer helped craft an entirely new section to the original bill, giving the Justice and State departments the power to stay court action indefinitely.” In a poor substitute for legal accountability, the amendment allows the government to halt any such suit as long as it can prove the U.S. government has engaged with the Saudis diplomatically to resolve the issue.
The amendment dubiously allows the Secretary of State to “certify” the U.S. is “engaged in good-faith discussions with the foreign-state defendant concerning the resolution of claims against the foreign state” in order to obtain a stay, or hold, on the lawsuit. Adding insult to injury, pursuant to the amendment, titled Section 5 in the bill, the attorney general can request a stay of an additional 180 days, further delaying legal action against Saudi Arabia. This kick-the-can method of accountability is further extended by another provision in the amendment that allows the Secretary of State to “recertify” that “the United States remains engaged in good faith discussions with the foreign state defendant” in order to extend the stay further. Ultimately, this amendment keeps the power out of the hands of victims’ families, leaving it square in the hands of the federal government.
Considering the fervent opposition to the legislation — from the White House to the Saudi Arabian government — in light of Schumer’s amendment, it is now more clear why the bill passed unanimously in a Congress known for its disinterest in the will of the people they represent: the bill is for superficial displays of accountability and building political capital, not actually providing legitimate recourse for families of victims.
“How do I feel about the Justice Department being given this power? Not good,” 9/11 widow Kristen Breitweiser told the Post. “Their failure to bring their own Saudi indictment reveals how little they care about holding the Saudis accountable for either their funding or operational support of the 9/11 hijackers.” Indeed, mounting evidence continues to implicate Saudi nationals, and even low-level members of the Saudi government, in coordinating the attacks.
Attorneys for victims’ families said they were assured by Schumer and his co-sponsor, Senator John Cornyn, that the U.S. government would have to present “real and tangible” proof in court to secure a stay. Schumer’s office referenced comments he made in the Congressional Record that “if the administration seeks to use this new authority, it should be prepared to provide substantial evidence of good-faith negotiations to the court.”
However, considering Saudi Arabia’s influence in Washington — currently, lobbyists for the country are distributing pro-Saudi pamphlets on the hill to counter current sentiments against them — it seems unlikely Schumer’s tepid reassurance will translate into accountability. “The kingdom is one of the leading nations in combating terrorism and terror-financing,” reads the 104-page pamphlet, though the opposite — that they support and fund terrorism — is arguably closer to the truth.
Saudi Arabia previously threatened to yank $750 billion worth of its U.S. assets if legislation like JASTA were passed, and President Obama bowed to those threats, vowing to veto the bill should it land on his desk. With Schumer’s caveat, however, such drastic measures are unlikely to play out in spite of JASTA’s passage.
In the meantime, the Post reports it’s unlikely the House of Representatives will challenge Schumer’s underreported manipulation of the bill, as House Speaker Paul Ryan has vowed to oppose the legislation altogether. He recently returned from a visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh and is not expected to let the bill come to a vote on the floor.
As the Post dishearteningly opined, though the recent bill “was widely heralded as a major victory,” it’s actually“more of a cruel hoax.” Considering Schumer’s comments last month promising “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” — uttered before he slipped his nullifying amendment into the text — it’s difficult to disagree.
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