Former Sen. Bob Graham played a major role in compelling the long-delayed release three months ago of a classified document showing possible ties between Saudi officials and some of the 9/11 hijackers.
Now the Floridian, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed almost 3,000 people, is hailing congressional passage and veto override of a new law allowing the victims' families to sue the Saudi government for alleged complicity.
"Several positive things are going to happen now," Graham told the Miami Herald. "The victims' families will have an opportunity for justice. And Saudi Arabia will be disabused of any idea that it has immunity from responsibility for its role in 9/11."
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. Several of them lived in Sarasota before the attacks and, while living there, had contacts with high-ranking Saudi officials. They also left the United States shortly before the attacks.
Graham said that even when he was head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and held a high security clearance, the U.S. government withheld information about the Saudis' ties to 9/11 from him and other members of Congress.
"But from what I know today, there is ample evidence that 9/11 would not have happened but for the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia," Graham said. "The results of that assistance was (nearly) 3,000 persons murdered, 90 percent of them Americans. And a new wave of terrorism with Saudi financial and operational support has beset the world."
The House and the Senate, by overwhelming margins in both chambers, voted last month to override President Barack Obama's veto of the bill permitting lawsuits against Saudi Arabia.
Obama said such lawsuits would expose the U.S. government to legal challenges against it for actions abroad by American armed forces. CIA Director John Brennan said lawsuits against Saudi Arabia would threaten U.S. national security.
After the Senate voted 97-1 to override Obama's veto of the measure, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest criticized the move as "the most embarrassing thing the Senate has done since 1983," when it had overwhelmingly rejected a veto by President Ronald Reagan.
That override, however, involved a much less consequential land dispute between the government and six retired people.
Earnest last week said the law will force judges to determine whether a government sponsors terrorism, a decision properly left to the president, the State Department and U.S. national security agencies.
"That was a piece of legislation and now a law that sought to target Saudi Arabia, a country that has not been designated a state sponsor of terrorism," Earnest said. "It does open up a scenario where you have judges at a variety of levels and a variety of different courtrooms, reaching different conclusions about whether or not another country is complicit in sponsoring terrorism. That's not an effective way for us to confront state sponsors of terror."
The Saudi government bitterly criticized the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, called JASTA, targeting Riyadh.
"The erosion of sovereign immunity will have a negative impact on all nations, including the United States," the Saudi Foreign Ministry said.
But a 9/11 victims advocacy group called September 11th Advocates hailed the new law.
"JASTA will keep Americans safe from terrorists and terrorist funders like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by setting a strong deterrent in holding the Kingdom accountable for its funding and logistical support of terrorist group," the group said Tuesday.
Despite Saudi claims since 9/11 that it is going after radical Islamic citizens, Graham said the changes have been minor.
"What I don't think they've changed is their Wahhabist commitment to the extreme form of Islam, which has served as the primary motivation for thousands of people to adopt jihad as their life goal," he said.
Graham, who retired from the Senate in January 2005 after three terms, said the Obama administration and that of President George W. Bush likely could have prevented Congress from allowing suits against Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. government should have released more information about possible Saudi ties to 9/11, Graham said, and it could have negotiated a settlement enabling the Saudi government to pay victims of the tragedy.
As an example, Graham cited the 2008 deal in which Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of 270 people killed in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 two decades earlier, in exchange for the dropping of U.S. sanctions.
"It was self-inflicted," Graham said. "The Bush and Obama administrations could have avoided JASTA if they had negotiated with Saudi Arabia through diplomatic channels and if they had voluntarily made more information available about responsibility for 9/11."
Photo credit: Tim Chapman, Miami Herald