By Kristen Breitweiser, one of the four 9/11 widows – known as the “Jersey Girls” – instrumental in forcing the government to form the 9/11 Commission to investigate the 2001 attacks. Follow Kristen Breitweiser on Twitter: www.twitter.com/kdbreitweiser.
Interestingly, just recently, the story about the illegal Saudi lobbying campaign from 2016 has made media headlines. The jaded skeptic in me would say that’s only because—on it’s face—the Saudi lobby story implicates MBS and Trump. Maybe so. But the Saudi lobby story runs deep; it implicates a slew of other former Administrations, former and current Congressional representatives, and Washington insiders.
Two years ago, the 9/11 Families fought for long overdue legislation called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that enabled us to hold the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) accountable in a court of law for their alleged role in the 9/11 attacks.
Prior to JASTA, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was protected from any liability for its role in Sunni radical terrorism by the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA). Under FSIA, the only way a foreign nation can be held responsible (legally, punitively, financially, etc.) for its participation in terrorism was if it was placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List.
Being formally placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List, more than anything, inhibits a nations’s ability to conduct business around the globe. It’s this inability to participate in global business transactions that truly controls whether you end up on the list—not whether you deserve to be on the list because of your participation/support of global terrorism. Essentially, like all things, it comes down to money and influence. And, even if you are placed on the list, often, there are “exceptions,” otherwise known as financial loopholes for the special, chosen few. And not surprisingly, those exceptions typically benefit the rich elite while punishing the poor. Sudan, and Libya are good examples.
Suffice it to say, when you are the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s larger producers of oil, geographically well-placed in the Gulf, and you have lots of money that U.S. foreign policy and military establishment folks likes to spend, it’s always been pretty easy for the KSA to keep itself off the State Sponsors list—even if the KSA rightfully deserve to be on it.
Thus, in some ways, JASTA was a legislative go-around to the formalities of being named to the State Sponsor of Terror list. Put simply, JASTA enables victims to hold a foreign nation accountable for its role and/or acts of terrorism, without stopping the “business” end of things that would normally be halted if such a country was named as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. Ruefully, the 9/11 Families would never get the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on the States Sponsors List, but we might be able to get JASTA.
Some say that in life, timing is everything. For the 9/11 Families, it was more a timing thing than a noble gesture by Congress that yielded us JASTA. It’s important to note that at the time of our fight for JASTA, luckily for us, the Saudis and their friends on Wall Street (and Washington DC) were bidding for the Saudi Aramco IPO (the world’s largest in history estimated at $2-3 trillion) to be hosted by the United States on Wall Street. Put simply, there was no room for any Saudi listing as a States Sponsor of Terror when billions were at stake. To some it would seem, JASTA was the more palatable (and lucrative) alternative.
Nevertheless, the 9/11 Families still had to fight to get JASTA. We faced enormous resistance since the Saudis don’t take kindly to being held accountable for their role in global terrorism. Saudi pockets run deep, and Saudi Royals are very good at taking care of their friends in Washington.
Moreover, at the time of the JASTA fight, the 9/11 Families fought against more than 15 highly paid Saudi lobbying firms that were openly getting paid millions to lobby against us. Firms like: MSLGroup/Qorvis; the Podesta Group; Squire Patton Boggs; DLA Piper; Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck; King & Spalding; Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman; Hohlt Group Global; Flywheel Government Solutions; Howard Buck McKeon; and BGR Government Affairs. Suffice it to say, we were up against many, many formidable foes.
During the fight for JASTA an uncanny thing happened in a very David and Goliath sort of way. In the vein of true patriotism(unlike the hundreds of former U.S. officials who run, work, and cash checks at the aforementioned lobbying firms), a U.S. veteran contacted the 9/11 Families about something that upset him. He told us that some of his friends were being asked to go to Washington to lobby against JASTA and that many of these vets did not understand what they were being asked to do. The vet felt that it was wrong for vets, many of whom had joined the military in the wake of 9/11, to be asked to go to Washington to lobby against the 9/11 Families.
Things got even worse once this vet had discovered who the folks enlisting his vet buddies truly worked for— the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world’s number one financier of Sunni terrorism. The sick irony of the Saudis hiring U.S. veterans who went to war and risked their lives to fight against Sunni radical terrorism to be paid to now go to Washington to lobby for Sunni radical terrorism was not lost on this man. And that is why he contacted the 9/11 families.
Indeed, the Saudi lobby braintrust (all those venerable Americans, the highly paid DC lobbyists and former officials) had decided to purposely pit U.S. veterans against 9/11 Family members. I guess it was envisioned as a kind of divide and conquer sort of thing. How sick.
So, the Saudi hired guns offered the U.S. vets an all expenses paid, five-star trip to Washington, where they could eat and drink for free, meet with key Senators and Representatives, and, most importantly, provide the “political cover” (that JASTA put our troops in harm’s way) those Senators needed to oppose JASTA, please the Saudis—and, snuff out the 9/11 Families. During this time, of course, the election had just taken place. Trump had become President. And what better place for the vets to stay, then Trump International Hotel, located a few steps from the White House. A strategic gesture of goodwill to the incoming President. There’s a reason those lobbyists are paid the big bucks, I guess.
Recall that at this point, JASTA had already been passed into law by an overwhelming (nearly unanimous) vote of Congress. JASTA even survived an Obama Administration veto, that was soundly overridden by Congress. (Notably, this was the only override of Obama’s presidency.) Though, none of that mattered to the Saudis, because they knew that they still had time to torpedo JASTA during the lame duck session. And, so they got to work.
Key members of Congress (some of them even JASTA co-sponsors) started making rumblings that JASTA needed to be “fixed.” The 9/11 Families were candidly told by a few of our elected officials that something needed to be “given to the Saudis.” Yes, that’s right: Given to the Saudis.
Now, you have to understand the very special kind of FU it is when a duly-elected United States Senator tells an American citizen and 9/11 family member—a victim of Sunni radical terrorism— that he needs to stab you in the back to please the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world’s number one funder of Sunni radical terrorism. Why would any U.S. elected official whose job it is to represent U.S. citizens—not Saudi Royals—want to give anything to a nation that contributed to the mass murder of 3,000 souls on the morning of 9/11?
Welcome to Washington.
Suddenly, a constant refrain started filtering through the airwaves from the halls of Congress, to the White House, and all over the media—JASTA needed a “tweak”; a “fix.”
Senator Bob Corker, Chair of Senate Foreign Relations said, “We may have a better opportunity to soften this once the bill has become law.” Corker had spoken with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir and said that, “representatives from Saudi Arabia would be open to making tweaks to the law.” Yes, that’s right, Senator Bob Corker—the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Congress—had checked in with the Saudis, and, the Saudis were ok with a “tweak” to the legislation. Well thank god for that!
But, unfortunately for Corker, Jubeir, and Secretary of State John Kerry (as you will see below), the idea of “tweaking JASTA” outright for the Saudis was not exactly a winning soundbite. No, something else needed to be ginned up. Something that could defeat the 9/11 families, weaken JASTA, downright protect the Saudis, and yet still have the shine of patriotism. And that’s when our nation’s war veterans were called up for their service to the Saudis. The vets became the Saudi cover: JASTA needed to be fixed because JASTA hurt our troops. Jackpot.
Want to know how effective Saudi money is? Want to know how far and fast it reaches to the highest places? Here are the soundbites that prove it:
President Barack Obama argued that JASTA could expose U.S. companies, troops and officials to lawsuits if other countries passed reciprocal legislation, and may anger important allies. He called Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and wrote a letter to him explaining that he strongly believed enacting JASTA into law would be detrimental to U.S. interests.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that JASTA could have “devastating” consequences for U.S. troops overseas. “Its potential second- and third-order consequences could be devastating to the Department and its Service members and could undermine our important counterterrorism efforts abroad,” Carter warned in a letter addressed to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
Secretary of State John Kerry (while holding a joint press conference with Saudi Ambassador Adel al Jubeir!!): “We[meaning Kerry and Jubeir] discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11, but at the same time does not expose American troops and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of losses.”
CIA Director John Brennan: JASTA “will have grave implications for the national security of the United States,” Brennan said. “The most damaging consequence would be for those U.S. government officials who dutifully work overseas on behalf of our country. The principle of sovereign immunity protects U.S. officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity”. “If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation’s officials in danger,” Brennan said. “No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States—and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA.”
Speaker Paul Ryan: House Speaker Paul Ryan said the law needs to be changed to ensure that US troops are protected. “I’d like to think there is a way we can fix it so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” Ryan said at his weekly news conference.
Richard Clarke, NSC Advisor for Presidents Clinton and Bush; Rand Beers, Homeland Security Advisor for Obama, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, former CIA Director Michael Morell, former Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley: “If JASTA is allowed to become law, it will completely undercut sovereign immunity protections upon which the United States and all sovereign nations have relied for centuries, and our troops, our diplomats and all U.S. government personnel working overseas could very well find themselves subject to lawsuits in other countries. This must not happen.”
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), “My primary concern is that this bill increases the risk posed to American military and intelligence personnel, diplomats, and others serving our country around the world,” Thornberry wrote in the letter circulated among Republican lawmakers. “Many of us have long resisted any attempt to subject U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic personnel to criminal or civil courts around the world. These individuals who are carrying out U.S. policy must be protected. Differences should be resolved between governments based on policies, not by individual litigants in the courts.”
Gen. Joe Dunford, the top U.S. military official, weighed in with a letter, outlining his concerns for U.S. service members and risks to the close security cooperation relationships with allies.
And finally, we had Senator Lindsey Graham and the late Senator John McCain, who led an effort to force a “reconsideration” of JASTA — even though both of them voted for the bill and for the JASTA override of Obama’s veto. Graham and McCain proposed a “revision” that they said was needed to protect American troops. “Here is the problem: Every time a drone is launched, every time Americans go in harm’s way, every time a diplomatic engages in activity abroad, we are subjecting them and our nation to lawsuits, potential imprisonment,” Graham said. “We need to fix this because if we don’t fix this, it will come back to haunt us.”
Of course, none of that was true. It was all said to serve the Saudis.
First and foremost, in America, there is nothing held more sacrosanct than the protection of our troops. That is why arguments made on grounds of needing to “protect our troops,” are taken so very seriously by all Americans – especially when delivered, in earnest, by a war veteran in uniform. The 9/11 Families would NEVER place the lives of our soldiers in danger. For us, many of our veterans joined the military in the wake of 9/11, and we see our veterans as our loved ones—members of our family and true American heroes.
JASTA does not place our troops in harm’s way. In fact, our troops and our diplomats, along with their actions overseas, have always been protected by the Vienna Convention and individual Status of Force Agreements. JASTA does not affect these long-established protections. Moreover, JASTA was a well-thought out, extremely carefully written piece of legislation that was thoroughly studied by the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and their attorneys before it became law. Any concerns or possible unintended consequences from JASTA – including its impact on our troops – were thoroughly raised and addressed prior to JASTA becoming law.
One of the attorneys representing the 9/11 Families crystalized the “fix” being offered by McCain, Graham and so many others, “Sens. McCain and Graham have indicated that they intend to address concerns, but if you read the record discussion, quite frankly, they’re proceeding on the basis of a complete misunderstanding, a lack of knowledge about the bill. The concerns being expressed by them, and the proposed fixes, are the concerns that were expressed and the fixes that have been authored by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is demonstrable. They are using the language that the Saudi foreign agents and lobbyists and PR firms are using. They are simply parroting their line.”
The 9/11 Families took our demonstrable evidence and information about the Saudis, their illegal lobbying campaign, and their low-life duping of our veterans, and we filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice. We provided all the proof that DOJ would need to hold the Saudis accountable for their factually proven violations of FARA. As of today, we have heard nothing back from DOJ.
According to Brian McGlinchey at 28pages.org (who originally broke the Saudi/US Vet lobby story nearly two years ago), today, “nearly eighteen months after the 9/11 families filed their formal complaint, there’s no indication any investigation ever took place[by the Department of Justice]. “It’s one of the most deceptive campaigns that any foreign lobbying operation has ever done, and yet there’s been no punishment whatsoever,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative. Meanwhile, according to McGlinchey, a recent revelation by a retired FBI counterintelligence agent offers yet another indication of a systemic DOJ tendency to put protection of the kingdom’s reputation ahead of the pursuit of justice.
The 9/11 Families have grown accustom to the DOJ not thoroughly investigating, indicting, prosecuting, or holding anyone accountable when it comes to 9/11—especially if that person is a Saudi or even worse, a Saudi Royal.
Recall that in early 2017, when the 9/11 Families were trying to get DOJ to investigate the illegal lobbying of the Saudis against JASTA, DOJ was more focused on proving the Russian collusion in the 2016 election.
And yet now, suddenly, in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi, I guess it is finally part of DOJ’s agenda to take a look at the Saudis—at least as far as their FARA violations back in 2016 are concerned. Frankly, the 9/11 Families don’t care if the Saudis get indicted for FARA violations, we want them indicted for their financial and logistical role in the 9/11 attacks that killed our 3,000 loved ones.
But in life, you take what you can get. And right now, the media and DOJ seem intent on focusing our attention on the Saudis illegal lobbying campaign that involved U.S. vets who stayed at Trump hotels. I just hope people are willing to delve deeper.
Take a look into the leaked emails of Yousef al Otaiba, the Emirati Ambassador to the United States, that were made public back in June of 2017. To me, these emails should be made part of any illegal Saudi lobbying campaign investigation. They provide information and, perhaps clearer context, of how the UAE and Saudis were influencing our members of Congress and those in Washington DC during 2016-17. And maybe, DOJ should ask why these two “allies” were so very concerned about facing 9/11 litigation and being held accountable for their logistical and financial role in the 9/11 attacks.
According to the Otaiba emails, a senior US official, emailed Otaiba on 1 December, stating that he “cannot reach Adel [al-Jubeir, Saudi foreign minister]”. He forwarded a message to al-Jubeir about the “fix”, asking: “Is the Kingdom ok with it?” Otaiba replied: “Adel is trying to reach you. The answer is YES.” A senior official at the Emirati embassy then told Otaiba that Graham “needs three Dems [Democrats] to co-sponsor his legislation”. She suggested three senators she believed “would be open to you making the ask that they co-sponsor, if you’re comfortable doing so.” “Happy to do it,” Otaiba replied. He asked about whether to approach a fourth senator, but was told: “Adel went to see him at 12:30 today.”
In a separate letter to a fifth senator, Otaiba conceded he understood “the desire to provide justice for those who were affected by 9/11”. But the “unintended consequences” of the legislation posed a large risk to the US and its allies. He highlighted three reasons for supporting the “fix”: “the impact of JASTA on US troops and military personnel, the impact of JASTA on the US’ counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing efforts, and the impact on US investments both domestic and abroad.” He added: “JASTA would also have a chilling effect on the global fight against terrorism. In order to effectively fight the scourge that is terrorism, the US needs reliable, trustworthy international partners. “If a foreign sovereign nation is at risk of being sued in a US court, even if it’s an ally, that nation will be less likely to share crucial information and intelligence under Jasta. Why risk alienating key allies at a time when their cooperation is absolutely necessary?” For further UAE and Saudi foreign influence, see also, here, here, here, and here.
The 9/11 Families are tired of waiting for justice. And we’re tired of the overt pandering and playing around our government does with the Saudis and their Emirati friends. Whether its for illegal lobbying and FARA violations, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, decades worth of human rights abuses and torture, the horrific atrocities in Yemen, or the murder of 3,000 on September 11th, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should be held accountable.