Saudis Paid U.S. Veterans to Lobby Against Law Allowing 9/11 Families to Sue Kingdom

Saudis Paid U.S. Veterans to Lobby Against Law Allowing 9/11 Families to Sue Kingdom

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- After Congress passed a new law allowing Sept. 11 victims' families to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts, opponents mounted an expensive political campaign, including paying American military veterans to visit Capitol Hill and warn lawmakers about what they said could be unintended consequences. 

What few people knew, including some of the recruited veterans themselves, was that Saudi Arabia's government was largely paying for the effort, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite a World War II-era U.S. law requiring lobbyists to immediately reveal payments from foreign governments or political parties, some of the campaign's organizers failed to notify the Justice Department about the Saudi kingdom's role until months afterward, with no legal consequences. 

Even now, some opponents of the law, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, still won't say to whom or how many exactly they paid thousands of dollars each to influence state and federal elected officials on behalf of Saudi Arabia, stymieing public knowledge about the scale of foreign influence on the push to overturn the legislation. 

The chief lobbyist for the Saudi Embassy in Washington said it encouraged its subcontractors to be as transparent as possible. But the campaign and the allegations surrounding it show what can happen when the often-murky world of lobbying intersects with emotive American issues like patriotism, protecting U.S. troops and the memory of Sept. 11. It also highlights how federal laws governing disclosures of foreign influence in American politics are only as strong as they're enforced. 

"If the purpose of the statute is to make a public record about how foreign sovereigns are spending money to influence U.S. policy, it's not clear how the Justice Department's relatively lax enforcement of the statute furthers that goal," said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor and national security law expert at the University of Texas. 

Congress voted overwhelmingly for the law in September, overriding a veto by U.S. President Barack Obama in his final weeks in office. The law, known by the acronym JASTA, gives victims' families the right to sue any foreign country found to support a terrorist attack that kills U.S. citizens on American soil. Its critics warn the law opens U.S. troops, diplomats and contractors to lawsuits that otherwise couldn't be filed under the terms of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine usually protecting governments and its employees in court. 

While the bill mentioned no countries, its supporters acknowledged that it took direct aim at Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis. The attacks masterminded by al-Qaida's Saudi-born leader Osama bin Laden killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. 

The U.S. government's 9/11 Commission's final report said it found no evidence that the Saudi government or officials funded al-Qaida. However, it said the terror group found "fertile fundraising ground in Saudi Arabia, where extreme religious views are common and charitable giving was ... subject to very limited oversight." 

Saudi Arabia's rulers, who fought a bloody al-Qaida insurgency in the years after 9/11 and who now face another from the Islamic State group, long have denied funding extremists. After JASTA became law, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said it hoped "wisdom will prevail and that Congress will take the necessary steps to correct this legislation in order to avoid the serious unintended consequences that may ensue." 

U.S. President Donald Trump is set to visit Saudi Arabia later this month. 

The veterans' lobbying effort began within a month after the vote. Soon, some 70 new subcontractors would be hired by Qorvis MSLGroup, a Washington-based lobbying and public relations firm that represents Saudi Arabia, according to Justice Department filings examined by The Associated Press.

Veterans who spoke to lawmakers had their flights and accommodation paid for with Saudi money distributed by the subcontractors, according to the filings. Some stayed at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Saudi Arabia's involvement was first reported by The Daily Caller, a conservative website, and later explored by the Saudi-skeptic website

One lobbyist involved, Jason E. Jones of Oregon, Wisconsin, told the AP on a conference call he organized with other veterans that all involved clearly were told that Saudi money funded the effort. 

But David Casler and brothers Dan and Tim Cord, two other veterans, said their first inkling that Saudi money funded the trip was when Jones told the assembled group in Washington that they should speak for themselves and "not the king of Saudi Arabia." They later spoke out on social media over their concerns. 

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