WASHINGTON — The White House is pushing back against a bill that would allow individuals victimized by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. So is U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
A day after President Barack Obama suggested he would veto the legislation in the lead-up to his high-profile visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh, the South Carolina Republican confirmed he is using parliamentary maneuvers to block the bill’s expedient passage.
While Obama said he was concerned the bill would open the floodgates to lawsuits across international governments, Graham told reporters he’s stalling because he fears new revisions could create adverse repercussions for the United States.
“I want to take this legislation that we pass, whatever it is, and apply it to ourselves,” Graham said Tuesday, “and see if we could withstand this legislation.”
In the original bill, Saudi Arabians could only be sued if their unsavory actions were performed within the scope of their jobs. While Saudi Arabia has not been implicated in the 9/11 attacks, 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers were of Saudi descent. There also have long been suspicions about the Saudi royal family’s ties to al-Qaida.
Revisions to the bill made at the request of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., removed those “scope of employment” protections — potentially making it more difficult to determine whether an individual committed a crime on his or her own volition or in connection to their employers — or country.
“I don’t want our country to be liable because of somebody in our consulate or embassy who has their own agenda, a rogue employee, an employee of the United States but they have their own agenda, they do something with some group somewhere,” Graham said. “I want to make sure that the defense would be, ‘they didn’t act under (U.S.) authority.’ ”
Graham, a co-sponsor of the so-called “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act,” also said the landscape has significantly changed since the bill was first passed out of the Judiciary Committee in January. For instance, Graham noted the U.S. is now supporting a group called the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. At the same time, the YPG is working with another group called the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. If the YPG and PKK were to team up for an attack on Turkey, Graham feared that under the pending legislation the U.S. could be sued on grounds it collaborated with the YPG in Syria.
“This is an example of where you gotta make sure you can’t sue the country because they have an association with the group,” he said. “You can only sue the country where they were involved in helping the group do the terrorist act.”
Under the rules of the Senate, any lawmaker can object to a bill being brought to the floor for swift passage. A failure to reach consensus among all 100 members means the leadership has to set up a structure for debating and voting on the bill, which also makes it vulnerable to controversial amendments that could sink the entire exercise. This is a bill that has Democratic and Republican support, and Graham’s opposition could impede a rare bipartisan coalition.
While senators are allowed to put holds on bills anonymously, Graham chose to reveal himself. He said he didn’t know for sure whether he was the only one with an active hold but said the legislation was in serious need of a second look. He alluded to a “major drafting error” his office had discovered Tuesday morning, which an aide confirmed was a U.S. Code citation that didn’t even exist.
Emma Dumain is The Post and Courier’s Washington correspondent.