Sept. 11 fam­i­lies can now sue the Saudis, but will it mat­ter?

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - STATE NEWS - By Larry Neumeis­ter and Jen­nifer Peltz

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.”

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