Bill Would Allow 9/11 Families to Sue Saudi Arabia

A bill introduced by New York Senator Charles Schumer to Congress this week would enable victims of terrorism to hold foreign sponsors of terrorism accountable in U.S. courts.

According to Schumer, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act would “allow the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to receive some justice for the losses they experience on that fateful day.”

“No individual or country should be shielded from being held accountable for their role in the most heinous act of terrorism to ever occur in the United States,” Schumer said.

Sam Rascoff, law professor at NYU who teaches national security law and counterterrorism issues, said the bill is significant because it is trying to balance two competing desires.  

“You're balancing the need to provide remedies for the victims of terror with the need for the White House to maintain inevitably delicate strategic partnerships overseas,” he said.

He also notes that, if passed, this law would give Congress more voice in foreign policy matters.

 “If this bill were to pass, Congress would assume a more prominent role in striking this balance,” he said.

In 2008, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a lawsuit from victims of the 9/11 terror attacks against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, alleging it helped finance the attacks.

The court ruled that Saudi Arabia was protected from prosecution under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976.

There are two exceptions to a state’s immunity under FSIA: if a country falls under the State Department’s designated list of state sponsors of terror, which Saudi Arabia is not among (Iran, Cuba, Syria and Sudan are the four on the list), or when a state commits a non-commercial tort, in other words they injure or do damage non-commercially.

The bill would make clear that FSIA tort exception applies to acts of terror in the U.S. and establish a 15-year statue of limitation under the Anti-Terrorism Act, which currently has a limit of four years.

This is not the first time this issue has been raised. Former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter and Schumer introduced the bill in 2009, where it did not make it out of committee.