Saudi threat over 9/11 bill spurs uproar on eve of Obama visit

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WASHINGTON Ahead of President Barack Obama’s jaunt to Saudi Arabia this week, the Persian Gulf nation laid down a threat last week.

The Arab kingdom demanded the defeat a bipartisan bill pending in Congress that would let families of Sept. 11 victims sue the government in Riyadh over any role it may have had in aiding the terrorists in that attack or face the sell off of $750 billion in American assets, mainly debt issued by the U.S. Treasury.

Saudi Arabia, whose Treasury holdings rank third worldwide behind only China and Japan, could prompt a devaluation of the dollar, spurring inflation in the U.S. and potentially destabilizing the world economy, if it follows through on the threat, first reported by the New York Times. The newspaper said the Obama administration has lobbied hard against the measure.

The report prompted widespread criticism of the Saudi government and Obama, with Boston U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, calling it “extortion” in a broadcast interview Monday.

“If we’re going to allow Saudi Arabia to extort us because we’re afraid they’re going to sell $700 billion of national debt, what the hell are we going to do when China wants complete control of the South China Sea and they’re saying they’ll dump $1.2 trillion of our national debt?” Lynch asked in the interview on WRKO-AM. “What kind of precedent does that set?”

The Saudi government “would be forced to sell up to $750 billion in treasury securities and other assets in the United States before they could be in danger of being frozen by American courts,” should the congressional measure become law, the Times reported. But skeptics said the threat rang hollow as such a sale would force the kingdom to accept less than full value for the assets and, by undermining the dollar, would cut the kingdom’s national income from the sale of its crude oil, which is priced in dollars.

Obama has planned to visit the Saudis for weeks, and the trip would mark his fourth to the kingdom, the most for any president.

The legislation, dubbed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, would provide a legal basis for the families of terrorism victims to sue foreign governments and individuals over aiding and/or funding terrorists, including groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State. Co-sponsors Sens. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Republican John Cornyn of Texas have said that their measure would enable lawsuits that target “countries like Saudi Arabia that has provided financial support to terror-linked operations to escape any repercussions.”

Last fall, a federal judge tossed out a case against Saudi Arabia by 9/11 families, citing sovereign immunity laws, Reuters reported. The Schumer-Cornyn bill would overturn such protections specifically in cases in which Americans are killed during terrorist attacks carried out on U.S. soil.

The Obama administration has pressed Congress not to pass the legislation, claiming that it could do more harm than good, the Times reported. Passage of the bill could also open the door to investigations into the roles played by the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, another Persian Gulf state, in aiding terrorist groups.

In February, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lobbied senators against the Schumer-Cornyn bill, saying it would “expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent.”

The families of 9/11 victims have expressed outrage over the idea that the federal government would side with the Saudis over its own people, according to CBS News, citing the wife of Kenneth Van Auken, who died in the attacks.

“It feels like blackmail,” Van Auken told CBS’s Chip Reid. “The government, the president is siding with Saudi Arabia over the 9/11 families.”

News of the Saudi threat also arrived at a time when the administration is weighing whether to declassify 28 pages of the official 9/11 report from Congress that has been locked away in a vault inside the U.S. Capitol. Members of Congress are one of the select few groups allowed to read the classified pages, which were redacted from the full report and remain hidden from public view.

Few members have publicly shared their thoughts after emerging from the soundproof room where the pages are held. One such member was Kentucky U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie. The Republican said the 28 pages “challenge you to rethink everything.”

Lynch acknowledged to RKO’s Jon Meterparel that he has seen the pages, but didn’t offer details.

“It’s not clear whether it was the Saudi government or the royal family or just rich individuals within Saudi Arabia that may have assisted in perpetrating the attacks on 9/11,” Lynch said on the air. “There’s some other information within the 9/11 report that has been sequestered or classified that many people think contains information that would implicate individuals in Saudi Arabia in those attacks.”

Van Auken told CBS she wants to see those pages and could use them in her case against the Saudi government.

“It’s hard to have a case when you can’t see your own evidence,” Van Auken said.

“We have to call their bluff on this,” Lynch continued on WRKO. The kingdom’s leaders “have to know the United States government stands on the side of our people and these families.”

“It is disgraceful that they would be coming forward with this type of proposition and that any administration might be willing to let people off the hook after they massacred U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, innocent families, and not allow them to recover just so that we might get some economic relief,” he said.

In July 2014, Kentucky’s Massie acknowledged the difficulty releasing the still-classified 28 pages, which may be useful to the victims’ families should the Schumer-Cornyn measure become law.

“I think it’s going to be difficult and it’s going to be embarrassing,” Massie said almost two years ago about making those pages public. “But that is no reason to keep the truth from the American people.”

Meanwhile, the Obama administration announced the latest round of transfers of Guantanamo Bay detainees. The administration said it sent nine Yemenis to Saudi Arabia, reducing the number of suspected or confirmed terrorists held in the facility in Cuba to 80.

The declaration prompted renewed criticism from New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican seeking re-election in November. A vocal critic of the transfers, she has introduced a bill to ban detainee transfers to U.S. prisons and would suspend any further releases until September 2017.

“The administration continues to dangerously release terrorists from Guantanamo and unnecessarily put Americans at increased risk in order to fulfill a misguided campaign promise all while refusing to level with the American people regarding the detainees’ terrorist risks, activities, and affiliations,” Ayotte said in a statement released Saturday. “Continuing to release these dangerous terrorists is reckless, and poses a serious threat to our troops, our allies, and our country.”