A lawmaker told a high ranking American diplomat on Thursday that Saudi Arabia isn’t considered a government sponsor of terrorism by the US because the country has “been selling us oil, which we’re slaves to.”
“And that’s why they’re not on the list,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said to Anne Patterson, the top official overseeing Middle Eastern foreign policy at the State Department.
Patterson immediately rejected Cohen’s claim.
“Sir, I would take issue with that,” Patterson said. “They’re not on the list because they’re not a state sponsor of terrorism.” She then said “an exhaustive” process goes into designating countries as a “State Sponsor of Terror.”
Cohen then replied, asking if Cuba still received the designation.
“No longer,” Patterson answered. The Cuban government stopped receiving the dubious distinction in May 2015.
“They were a real threat to us,” Cohen derisively shot back. “Great list.”
The cagey exchange occurred before a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
The legislation, which unanimously passed the Senate in May, would enable lawsuits against foreign governments who finance militant extremism from outside of US jurisdiction. The bill would, however, give the Secretary of State the ability to block suits.
Currently, foreign governments not officially considered sponsors of terror enjoy sovereign immunity in federal courts.
JASTA, which has broad bipartisan support, was specifically designed to enable litigation against the government of Saudi Arabia. Although the US has for years considered the monarchy a key ally in counterterrorist missions, many observers believe that Saudi officials may have directly aided and abetted the nineteen 9/11 hijackers. Fifteen of them were Saudi nationals.
Lawmakers have long been calling on the Obama administration to declassify the section of the congressional commission on 9/11, which purports to lay out Saudi officials’ involvement. Critics of the push have said the 28 pages should remain classified, describing them as speculative, investigatory documents.
The Guardian in May reported on recently declassified information which may run parallel to some of what is within the 28 pages, however, and it appears to detail an investigatory lead, more than speculation.
The documents show 9/11-commissioners eliciting nonsensical responses from a former Saudi diplomat, “when confronted with evidence of his 21 phone calls with another Saudi in the hijackers’ support network.” Fahad al-Thumairy, the subject of the interview, had once claimed the other man he had contacted was a stranger.
The Guardian noted that a commission staffer later said: “It was so clear Thumairy was lying. It was also so clear he was dangerous.”
The administration believes it will soon be able to back up its claims on the Saudi government’s innocence. Patterson noted Thursday that the aforementioned 28 pages will soon be declassified. The claim was later on Thursday also reported by CNN and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
Cohen, however, said that innocence claim might not withstand legal scrutiny if JASTA passes.
“If we changed this law and they’re subject to liability, might we found out that they should have been on the list?” he asked, referring again to State Sponsors of Terror. The question, which occurred at the onset of his questioning, caused some of the public gallery to burst into applause.
Patterson additionally noted that the administration opposes JASTA because it could expose the United States to retaliatory litigation overseas.
“I have seen, first hand, throughout my career, that the United States benefits significantly from the protection afforded by foreign sovereign immunity, given its extensive diplomatic, security and assistance operations,” she said.
Patterson cited as increasing litigation risk: civilians killed in US airstrikes and the fact that Washington “funds, trains, and equips numerous groups around the world.”
“As members of this committee know, some actions that the United States takes overseas can be controversial,” she remarked.