WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) – Saudi Arabia is one of America’s closest allies – and one of President Obama’s biggest headaches.
“It’s complicated,” the president coolly assessed the US-Saudi relationship in a recent interview.
Nearly 15 years after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the Middle East nation is once again the sun around which fiery debates swirl in Washington.
Two questions remain unanswered: Did Saudi Arabia help fund the 9/11 attackers? And should the victims’ families be legally permitted to sue the Saudi government?
28 pages of 9/11 clues
Congressional investigators dug into the days and months leading up to the 9/11 attacks and published an extensive report, which preceded the better-known 9/11 Commission Report.
But the public never saw the full congressional account.
America’s intelligence community, under President George W. Bush, classified 28 pages of findings reportedly showing that Saudi agents helped the 19 hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals, make connections and live comfortably in the United States as they trained for the attacks.
The 28 pages are “like a police report,” reveals 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer – a mashup of speculation and solid evidence. “They have initial impressions of what happened on 9/11. They have some clues. And they also have allegations. And they have some concrete conclusions.”
Many of the congressional and commission investigators, like former U.S. Ambassador and Congressman Roemer (D-Ind.), are pushing for the final 28 pages to be fully declassified.
“It’s a much stronger foundation for America to be about openness and transparency, even if it’s uncomfortable for one of our allies like Saudi Arabia, rather than be about secrets and conspiracy theories,” Roemer insists. “You only enhance conspiracy theories when you cover things up and don’t release them. Let the sun shine on these 28 pages.”
Mr. Obama, who’s “clearly irritated” by pressures of protocol to appear buddy-buddy with the Saudis, could very well release the documents to do nothing more than prove a point. Furthermore, the chief executive would earn bragging rights for transparency in an administration widely criticized as opaque and overly self-protective.
Saudi officials have said they have “nothing to hide” and publicly encouraged the release of the 28 pages.
CIA Director John Brennan still isn’t sold. On NBC’s Meet The Press, the intel chief warned, “There was no evidence that indicated that the Saudi government as an institution or Saudi officials individually had provided financial support to al-Qaeda.”
The Associated Press reports that Mr. Obama will release “at least part” of the pages soon, but the timeframe remains unclear.
Families push to sue Saudis
American citizens currently are barred from suing foreign governments, even when they are responsible for the physical harm of Americans.
But 9/11 families want Congress to change the law to clear the way for them to file lawsuits naming Saudi leaders as defendants. Several dozen prominent Washington power players – including Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) – already are on board.
“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. If the Saudis did, they should pay a price,” said Schumer, who, along with Hillary Clinton, served as New York’s senator on 9/11.
The Senate bill, “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” already boasts 23 bipartisan cosponsors and passed the Judiciary Committee with dispatch. The House version has 19 cosponsors, but faces a more uncertain future.
House leaders reportedly are waiting to see what the Senate will do before scheduling their own vote.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) might be the source of the holdup. He is the man ultimately responsible for moving the bill forward, but recently telegraphed his trepidation, saying, “I think we need to review it to make sure we’re not making mistakes with our allies – that we’re not catching people up in this that shouldn’t be caught up in this.”
Most of the 2016 presidential candidates publicly support the 9/11 family bills, including: Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Gov. John Kasich (R-Ohio) did not immediately comment on the issue.
Despite having the 2016 contenders’ support, the current White House occupant is threatening a veto.
Mr. Obama opposes changing the law, warning it will open the U.S. government to unlimited lawsuits from foreign nationals. In the age of drone strikes and unintended deaths, that could get messy in a hurry.
“If we open up the possibility that individuals and the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries,” the president told CBS anchor Charlie Rose.
Saudi Arabia has threatened to sell off $750 billion in U.S. assets in retaliation, should the bills pass.
Trump’s response? “Let ’em sell ’em. … No big deal,” reports CNN.
Overriding President Obama’s veto would require a two-thirds majority in each chamber of Congress.
US-Saudi relations at risk
Some old Washington hands view a controlled collision with Saudi Arabia as a positive turning point.
“This will create some tension, no doubt about it. The Saudis will not want to be in the spotlight on this,” predicts Roemer, who served as America’s ambassador to India under Mr. Obama.
Roemer, with full knowledge of the diplomatic landmines that lie ahead, still concludes, “We need to have an honest talk with the Saudis about how we reset this relationship, strengthen it, talk about problems of the past and move forward.”
In the end, the White House likely will split the baby: release at least a portion of the 28 pages but veto the 9/11 families bill.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales