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What the State Department Hasn't Told Us

Posted: 01/19/11 12:08 PM ET

While the world of diplomats, politicians and pundits ruminate over the thunderous effects of the release of the WikiLeak cables, a group of us have had to accept the bitter truth that our own government has misled us about a key issue in the war on terrorism -- namely, Saudi Arabia's ongoing failure to address financial support for terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

More than eight years ago, we and other families of the nearly 3,000 innocent people killed in the September 11th attacks and some survivors took action to stem the flow of support to al Qaeda from Saudi charities and contributors, by filing civil lawsuits against them and their Saudi government patrons.1 Our belief that the civil justice system should play a primary role in deterring the sponsorship of terrorism was by no means novel -- Congress specifically contemplated such action when it passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, through which it authorized victims of terrorism and their families to file civil claims against responsible terrorists and their sponsors.

Following a federal appeals court decision dismissing our claims against a Saudi government charity and several Saudi government officials (In re Terrorist Attacks on September 11, 2001, 538 F.3d 71 (2d Cir. N.Y. 2008)) on sovereign immunity grounds, we sought review of our case by the Supreme Court. In response to a request by the Supreme Court for its views, the Obama Administration filed a legal brief in which it acknowledged that the appeals court had committed clear error in deciding the case, but nonetheless argued that the Supreme Court should decline review, suggesting that Saudi Arabia's complicity in the September 11th attacks was a topic better addressed through "diplomatic, rather than legal" channels. As a result, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and Saudi Arabia was spared from having to answer on the merits for a role in sponsoring al Qaeda.

Shortly thereafter, Senior State Department officials invited a representative group of us to the State Department for a face to face meeting.2 Those officials declined to tell us why the Administration had sided with Saudi Arabia rather than with the families of those killed on September 11, 2001, but sought to persuade us that our civil suit against Saudi Arabia and its charities was not needed to choke the flow of support to al Qaeda, assuring us that the government's diplomatic engagement with Saudi Arabia since the Attacks had succeeded in making the Kingdom a true partner relative to terrorism financing issues.

Senior Administration officials advocated this same view in numerous statements to Congress and the American public as a whole. For instance, following a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister in February 2010, Secretary of State Clinton stated that the United States and Saudi Arabia have "a shared determination to protect our people from" terrorism and expressed her "appreciation to the Kingdom for the effort that it has undertaken to combat terrorism everywhere."

These laudatory statements stand in stark contrast to the bleak assessments3 set forth in the State Department cables that have been widely reported following the WikiLeaks release, a disparity that cries out for Congressional investigation and legislative action. Indeed, these reports make clear that even after nine years of intensive diplomatic engagement relative to the issue of terrorism financing, funds and resources continue to flow to al Qaeda from Saudi sponsors and charities with close ties to the government, and the U.S. has been unable to convince the Saudis to treat the problem as a priority.

That our own government misled the American people about these issues is disheartening, especially to those of us who were injured or lost loved ones on 9/11 and were foreclosed by the actions of our own government from using the civil justice system to hold accountable al Qaeda's financiers. More importantly, the support from Saudi Arabia to Sunni extremists presents an acute threat to the national security of the United States, and the cables make clear that we must reevaluate our strategy for addressing that threat.

To be sure, countless members of our government work tirelessly every day to keep us safe. But it is time to recognize that private action by families of terror victims can serve as an important complement to governmental activities and can help ensure greater safety for all Americans. To that end, Congress should take prompt action to pass the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a bill that would restore the role of the civil justice system in holding terrorist sponsors to account for their deliberate targeting of American citizens. And for its part, the Obama Administration should stand with us this time and urge Congress to pass the bill swiftly.

Terry Strada lives in New Vernon, NJ and currently spends her time fund raising for Justin's Hope Fund, named for her youngest son who was diagnosed with brain cancer 4 years ago. Her husband, Tom, was killed in the North Tower of the WTC on 9/11. Emanuel Lipscomb lives in Washington, DC and suffered injuries at the WTC on 9/11. He and a small group of civilians, were there helping people escape before support arrived and remained with the first responders on the street next to the first tower even until it fell. As a miracle he survived and was rescued hours later still at ground zero. His life and witness is a testimony to them all. He is today rebuilding his life and a new business to help others in our collective time of need.

Notes:

1. The complaint in our case, captioned with the name Thomas E. Burnett, Sr., et al. vs. Al Baraka Investment and Development Corporation, et al. is available here. Although originally filed in the federal court in the District of Columbia, the case was transferred to the federal court in the Southern District of New York where it was consolidated with other similar cases for pretrial proceedings.

2. On June 15, 2009, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg hosted a meeting at the offices of the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. with representatives of the 9/11 families involved in civil litigation. Both authors of this Op-Ed attended that meeting. The government officials who participated included representatives from the State Department, Treasury Department and the Justice Department. In addition to Deputy Secretary Steinberg, the other attendees from the State Department included David D. Nelson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Finance and Development, Gerald C. Anderson, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs, Gina Aberecrombie-Winstanley, Deputy Coordinator, Programs Directorate, Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and Robert Harris, Deputy Legal Advisor of Department of State. For the Families, the purpose of the meeting was to express their dismay, disappoint, and anger for the brief filed to the U.S. Supreme Court on the behalf of the U.S. and the government's overall approach to siding with the Saudi ruling family. At the beginning of the meeting, Deputy Secretary Steinberg explained that the State Department was not prepared to discuss the government's brief but that the purpose for inviting the Families to the meeting was to discuss what the government was doing to oppose terrorist financing, hear concerns, listen to information the Families may have to share, and extend an offer of partnership to achieve the common goal of cutting off financing to terrorists. In the end, the message conveyed by the State Department representatives was that the goal that the Families sought from the litigation -- to stem the tide of terrorist financing -- was better met through the government activities rather than through employing the tools of civil litigation made available particularly through the Antiterrorism Act.

3. For example, in one State Department cable, dated December 30, 2009, months after the meeting with the State Department and just over a month before her public statement praising Saudi cooperation, Secretary Clinton acknowledges that "donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide" and that "it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.