Saudi Arabia and the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act

President Obama has made it clear that he intends to veto the legislation the House passed on September 9, 2016 that would allow families of those killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for any role its officials played in the terrorist attack. He should veto the bill and the Congress should pause and not override that veto.

It is all too easy to understand anger the families and survivors of those who were victims on 9/11 feel, and the desire they have to find someone to punish and blame and for some compensation for their losses. It is equally easy to understand the mixed motives of a Congress caught up in the politics of fifteenth anniversary of the attack, an election year, and the desire not to seem soft on terrorism.

Saudi Arabia is also one of America’s most difficult strategic partners for Americans to understand, and its progress, reforms, and strategic importance are often badly understated. It is easier to focus on the fact it is an Islamic state at a time when extremist threats like ISIS, Al Qaida, and the Taliban are at top of mind, than to focus on the complicated security issues in the Gulf region and the fact the U.S. is critically dependent on Saudi Arabia both in dealing with Iran and in fighting terrorism in the region from which it draws most of its strength.

This may help explain why the Congress passed a bill based so loosely on some 28 pages in a report that does not find the Saudi government to be guilty of anything, ignored the extent to which the legislation raised major issues international law and potentially opened the U.S up to suits again America, and did so without ever debating the bill on the floor of the Senate—which originally passed the bill in May—or in the House which passed it on September 9 th.

It is also why the Congress is also considering blocking major arms transfers to Saudi Arabia after the United States had already made Saudi Arabia both a key regional military power and a key U.S. strategic partner in the Gulf by selling it over $152 billion worth of advanced U.S. arms between 2001 and 2015.

There may well be a good reason for the Congress and the Administration to publically reexamine U.S. strategy in the Gulf and the Middle East. The strategic value of the region is changing. The nuclear agreement with Iran has not moderated the threat it poses in the Gulf; its growing missile forces pose to the entire region, or the growth of its military influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the region.

The “war” against ISIS may win some important victories in Iraq and Syria, but it is all too clear that the threat posed by violent Islamic extremism and terrorism will continue and grow in spite of such victories. We need clearer strategies, we need more transparency, we need clear plans to deal with our strategic partners, and we need a bipartisan consensus our regional allies can trust.

These efforts cannot, however, be based on empty conspiracy theories, domestic political posturing, and a failure to honestly establish the facts. They cannot be based on making the worst-case interpretation of the suspicions set forth in 28 pages of redacted Congressional reporting provided in the Congressional Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001—a report issued in December 2002 with only limited staff resources and long before the full facts were available.

The Congress and the Administration need to fully and openly examine:

  • The growing dependence of the global and U.S. economies on the stable flow of petroleum exports from the Gulf, their impact on key U.S. trading partner in Asia, and their impact on the U.S. economy in spite of the steady reductions in direct U.S. petroleum imports.
  • The full historical record of what happened in 9/11 and the fact that later FBI and U.S. intelligence investigations never found any meaningful Saudi official participation in 9/11.
  • The emergence of Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies as key partners in the broader struggle against terrorism and Islamic extremism.
  • The role that Saudi Arabia plays in leading the Gulf Cooperation Council and regional security effort in the Gulf and the Middle East, and in deterring and countering Iran.

This scarcely means that the United States should not encourage reform in Saudi Arabia – reforms which its government has already begun to undertake. It does not mean that the United States should not ask Saudi Arabia and its other regional allies to do more to fight violent extremism and provide for their own defense where this is possible. The last thing on earth the United States needs, however, is to “fight” terrorism by alienating a key partner in that fight as well as the equally important effort to contain and deter Iran.

These issues are addressed in detail in a revised Burke Chair report entitled Saudi Arabia and 9/11: Establishing the Truth Behind the Release of the 28 Pages and the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.” This report is available on the CSIS web site at

Photo credit: Master Sgt. Ben Bloker/U.S. Air Force
Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy