Sept. 11 families can now sue the Saudis, but will it matter?
Just because Congress has allowed Sept. 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia over claims it had a role in the terror attacks doesn’t mean such a case will ever go before a jury.
Already, a federal judge has blasted the legal case at the heart of the debate as notoriously weak and full of “largely boilerplate” accusations. And the revised law that passed this week over President Barack Obama’s veto gives the Justice Department sweeping authority to put the case on hold and fails to eliminate sovereign immunity from protecting Saudi Arabia’s assets.
“The bill really is the worst of both worlds — everything Saudi Arabia complained about and very little of what the plaintiffs thought they were getting,” said Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor who has closely tracked the litigation for nearly a dozen years.
Still, some families are enjoying a victory, including Kathy Owens, whose husband, Peter, died in the 2001 attacks.
“If our government had investigated and prosecuted the financiers of 9/11, we wouldn’t have had to do it,” said Owens, among a group of victims’ relatives who traveled to Washington to stage a rally and work the halls of Congress.
Claims — and the kingdom’s denials — of Saudi involvement in the 2001 attacks have swirled for years.
Fifteen of the 19 attackers were Saudis, and U.S. investigators looked into some Saudi diplomats and others with Saudi government ties who had contact with the hijackers after they arrived in the U.S., according to now-declassified documents. The 9/11 Commission report found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” the attacks’ al-Qaida masterminded, but the commission also noted “the likelihood” that Saudi-government-sponsored charities did.
So far, hundreds of victims’ relatives have signed on to the 12-year-old case, which accuses employees of the Saudi government of directly and knowingly assisting the attack’s hijackers and plotters and of fueling al-Qaida’s development into a terrorist organization by funding charities that supported them.
U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan last year criticized much of the new evidence that lawyers for families say has emerged to strengthen their claims, including offers to testify at a trial from the imprisoned Zacarias Moussaoui — known as the “20th hijacker.”
In tossing out Saudi Arabia as a defendant, Daniels called some of the new claims “entirely conclusory” and others “largely boilerplate.” The case was on appeal, but based on Congress’ intervention, it will now likely be returned to the lower court, and the same judge.
Still, plaintiffs say just airing their argument in court would be a victory in itself. “We’re less interested in any kind of financial gain than we are in bringing the truly guilty into court and making our case known,” said Alice Hoagland, who lost her son, Mark Bingham.
But they also are hoping for a financial award: “It’s the only tool that I know that we have” to make accountability hit home, Owens said.
The Saudi government has said it has been “wrongfully and morbidly accused of complicity,” in fighting extremists and is trying to close their funding channels. Officials staunchly opposed the lawsuit legislation, and Obama has said it “would be detrimental to U.S. national interests.”
Plaintiffs such as Owens don’t buy that argument: “It’s asking us to accept the murder of 3,000 people so we don’t get sued someday?” They suggest the administration’s real concern is protecting what the families see as an unworthy ally.
But some other 9/11 relatives think it’s a mistake to try to cram the complexities of 9/11 into a courtroom.
Donald Goodrich, who lost his son Peter, has “a powerful doubt that any fact not now known will significantly change the picture for me.” A civil trial lawyer himself, he notes that a jury would be focusing on a specific aspect of Sept. 11, not weighing it within the broader consideration of international relations and national security.
“I want to leave it where it belongs ... and not color it and potentially tip the balance of it through a private litigation process,” Goodrich said. “The things that are needed to keep us safe are so very different from the issues that are going to be tried in the lawsuit.”