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Some Americans have been waiting nearly 15 years for this moment.
The Senate unanimously voted on Tuesday to grant families of 9/11 victims the right to sue Saudi Arabia for its possible involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Despite the White House having indicated that it will veto the legislation, the families believe that prosecution of the possible perpetrators is necessary to achieve justice and reach a sense of peace.
Saudi officials have long denied involvement in the plot that killed thousands. And the 9/11 Commission, tasked with preparing an account of the attacks in their aftermath, found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” But 28 still-classified pages of a 2002 congressional inquiry, which deal with the question of foreign financing, are said to “point a strong finger at Saudi Arabia.” That’s according to former Florida Sen. Bob Graham who was involved in the congressional inquiry while chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I always had a suspicion that the Saudis were involved in this somehow,” says John Olsen, who lost his wife Maureen in Tower One. “I’m not sure if it was the Saudi government, but if you look at the number of hijackers that were involved, most of them were Saudis.
“If we do something, we need to be held accountable. If they do something, they need to be held accountable. It goes both ways.”
“I think [the vote] is a positive move,” he adds.
Monica Iken, whose husband Michael worked and died in Tower Two, joins Olsen and many others as plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the Saudis. But their efforts have been fruitless thus far, partly because of a 1976 law granting foreign nations some immunity from lawsuits in American courts. If passed, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), would ensure that Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in 9/11 could be examined.
“It’s very important that family members have the right to go after those that managed these horrific attacks that murdered our loved ones just for going to work that day,” says Iken. ‘We’re dealing with more terrorist attacks with ISIS and … we need to send a stronger message that this will not be allowed.”
The Obama administration, however, holds a very different position. In February, Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate panel that the bill could “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday that “given the concerns that we’ve expressed, it’s difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation.”
The victim family members interviewed by the Daily Dot seem dumbfounded by the administration’s arguments.
“If we do something, we need to be held accountable. If they do something, they need to be held accountable. It goes both ways,” says Iken. “If we do an airstrike and we’re striking something thinking there are no civilians and there are, then we need to be held accountable. But I don’t think we deliberately—it’s different when you take planes and they become weapons, that’s a whole different thing.”
Julia Rodriguez, who lost her brother Gregory in the towers but is not involved in legal action against the kingdom, agrees with Iken. “I think we should be able to investigate and take it to court,” she says. “If they are responsible, it should be pursued like any other case.”
Rocky diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and possible economic fallout reportedly weigh heavy in the administration’s consideration of the legislation. Last month, according to the New York Times, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir threatened to sell as much as $750 billion in its U.S. assets should the legislation be enacted—the fear being that such assets would be frozen by the courts. Though economists doubt the kingdom would take such a hit itself, the statement is sign of a strained relationship between the U.S. and a key Middle East ally.
“I don’t care if we alienate the Saudis,” says Rodriguez. “We pick and choose who our allies are, but I’m not sure they’re always good reasons.”
Olsen adds: “If they had nothing to do with it, then they shouldn’t worry. If they had something to do with it, then they should be held accountable.”
The House has yet to act on the legislation. But if the bill passes both houses and President Obama decides to veto, Schumer believes that the Senate can override the veto with a two-thirds vote. Iken hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“[Obama] needs to take a leadership role and sign the bill,” she says. “It sends a message globally that this is not acceptable and you will be held accountable.
“He needs to show his allegiance to us as Americans in making sure that this does not happen again to our loved ones,” she continues. “I have two girls, and I don’t want to have to worry about the future generations.”
Lauren Walker reports on technology, cybersecurity, and foreign affairs. She worked as a staff writer at Newsweek and previously worked for Al Jazeera America.