Family members of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks say they have been blindsided by the Obama administration’s opposition to their lawsuit seeking damages from top members of the Saudi Arabian government over suspected financial links to the 9/11 attackers.
A series of closed-door meetings between the relatives’ groups and Justice Department officials, arranged as an update on Mr. Obama’s plan to close the detention facility at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, turned instead into a sharp clash over the Saudi legal action, The Washington Times has learned.
“Physically, President Obama has done what previous presidents have done for a long time, which is bow down,” said Debra Burlingame, co-founder of 9/11 Families for a Safe and Strong America.
The relatives of the victims have signed onto a lawsuit seeking damages from four Saudi princes, saying they have been financing al Qaeda and thus are responsible in large part for the attacks that killed their loved ones.
The family members demanded to be be heard on the White House’s stance during a series of closed-door meetings at the State Department and the Justice Department last week.
The Supreme Court is expected to meet Thursday to decide whether to take the families’ case, which was rejected by a federal appeals court last year. The administration’s opposition to a Supreme Court review has dampened hopes among the 11 families for a reversal.
“Myself and the other family members are unanimously upset,” said Doug Connors, whose older brother was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. “We feel that our government hasn’t supported us as victims.”
A U.S. district court dismissed the suit against the princes, a Saudi banker and a Saudi-based charity in 2006, and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling in August 2008.
But lower courts have split in other cases on how to apply the sovereign immunity rules set by the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, and the Supreme Court justices asked Solicitor General Elena Kagan to weigh in on the 9/11 case in February. The brief was filed last month.
U.S. law makes it extremely difficult for citizens to sue foreign governments in U.S. courts, and the lower court ruling noted that Saudi Arabia is not listed on the State Department’s official list of state sponsors of terrorism.
The Obama administration concurred with the overall sweep of the lower court rulings, but not with all of the legal reasoning.
“The lower courts correctly concluded that Saudi Arabia and its officials are immune from suit for governmental acts outside the United States,” wrote Ms. Kagan in her brief, considered the official position of the U.S. government.
The administration’s position caught many family members off-guard and left them simmering at last week’s meetings.
One meeting was called Monday at the State Department to hear from the families about terrorist-financing networks. Two meetings were held at the Justice Department for families to air their concerns about the future of the Guantanamo prison.
Family members who attended the three meetings said the administration officials did not answer any questions about the Supreme Court brief, filed by the administration with the high court May 29.
Ms. Burlingame attended a Tuesday meeting at the Justice Department with top officials, including Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.. When one of the family members asked about the White House opposition to the lawsuit, there was no response from the officials, Ms. Burlingame said.
“In the nature and tone of the amicus brief of May 29, I’m so sorry to observe that it is just cynical, and it seems rooted in political motivation,” said Alice Hoagland, whose son, Mark Bingham, was killed on Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania after he helped wrest control of the plane from the terrorists.
“That to me is horrifying,” she said.
A Justice Department spokesman said the administration held the meetings to hear from family members and declined to discuss details.
Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that while he sympathized with the families, the State Department is pursuing a broader strategy, using multiple tools to reach beyond U.S. borders and freeze terrorist assets.
“They’d be even more effective,” Mr. Steinberg said Monday. “At best what the litigation can do is try to get a judgment against the individual who may not have assets in the U.S.”
Mr. Connors attended the Monday meeting at the State Department with top administration officials, including Mr. Steinberg and Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, the department’s lead official on terrorist-financing networks.
Mr. Connors said family members got no answers to their questions about why the administration is opposing their lawsuit.