WASHINGTON — A former member of the 9/11 Commission told a House panel Tuesday that he’s “strongly in favor” of declassifying 28 pages about foreign support for the Sept. 11 hijackers and backs legislation under veto threat that would let victims’ families sue Saudi Arabia.
Chairman Ted Poe (R-Texas) opened the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade hearing noting that while “the kingdom has taken important steps since 9/11 to counter terrorism, it has some room to improve.”
“What concerns me is the Saudi government comes to us and says they’re our friend and we should protect them from the statute, while funding every day the Wahhabi mullahs who not only preach orthodox practice of Islam, but preach violent murder against those who they disagree with,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), referencing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. “And it is time for Saudi Arabia to come clean. They can’t say they don’t support terrorism, all they do is fund at, many hundreds of millions of dollars a year, those who plant the seeds of terrorism around the world.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), though, argued that Saudi Arabia “has made substantial progress in their counter-terrorism efforts post 9/11.”
“They have strengthened financial policies aimed at countering terrorist financing, and worked with the United States and other countries to increase transparency and information sharing. They’ve also imposed harsh sentences on Saudi nationals who attempt to join foreign terror groups, and have conducted military operations against the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in the region,” Wilson said.
“These are all important steps in working towards peace and security for the region. As we work together to combat Islamic extremism we must keep in mind the considerable influence that Saudi Arabia has over the ideologies and religious practices that will guide the Middle East for years to come.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) accused the Saudis and royal family of being “right up to their eyeballs in terrorist activity and supporting the terrorist activity of radical Islamic forces in the Middle East.”
“We’re not going to correct the situation, it won’t get better unless we’re willing to step up and basically let the American people know who’s the bad guy and who’s the good guy in this age of terrorism,” Rohrabacher added, calling on his colleagues to “say the truth.”
Former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), who sat on the 9/11 Commission, testified that “Saudi society still continues to produce a disturbing number of recruits and supporter for terrorist groups around the world, including in Syria.”
“There is a glaring contrast, some days and weeks and months, between high-level Saudi legitimate cooperation and helping the United States uncover plots, which is critical for us,” he said. “But it often directly conflicts with the society and culture that sometimes exports extremism and intolerance.”
Roemer acknowledged the 28 pages of classified information from Congress and reviewed by the 9/11 Commission, adding that he’s “strongly in favor for declassifying this information as quickly and as soon as possible for national security reasons, the 9/11 families deserve it, the American people deserve it and justice deserves it.”
“The threat of extremism cannot be countered by police, intelligence and military actions alone,” he said. “The Saudi government needs to address the threat of radicalization and extremism within its own society. In all of this, we should be cognizant of the fact that the Saudis themselves are threatened by extremism and have suffered greatly from it.”
Roemer said he’s in favor of the bill from Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) that could allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration strongly opposes the legislation, arguing it would create a potential nightmare for the U.S. in terms of sovereign immunity.
“Given that we are a country of rules and laws, and that if our court thereby finds that there was some activity or action by Saudi that contributed, let our courts prevail and let justice prevail,” said Roemer, also a former U.S. ambassador to India.
Sherman noted that the Saudis have threatened to sell $750 billion worth of assets if the bill becomes law. “I don’t think they’d do it, but even when they say they would do it, is this to avoid attachment as a litigation defense strategy? Or is this to punish and scare the United States?” the California Dem asked.
“I don’t think they’d do it. They didn’t buy those securities and American bonds to do us a charitable work. They did it to make money,” Roemer replied. “They’re not going to sell it if it loses them a lot of money.”
Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) asked about the success of “increases in legal reforms and efforts to constrain financially the ability of people in Saudi Arabia to fund for this extremist activity.”
“On the one hand you see the Saudis cooperating, helping us, cracking down on terrorism, passing national laws to try to restrict people from joining up with the Islamic State, and on the other hand as we read in the recent article in the New York Times, Saudi money and government financing for more jihadis going from Kosovo to Syria,” Roemer said.
“We need both the Saudi hands working together with the United States on counter-terrorism as a principle concern along with our other strategic objectives which are Middle East stability, which are making sure that Iran cannot do us harm through terrorism, through promoting human rights, and through some of the other key issues that we’ve mentioned here.”
Sherman noted that the U.S. government accepts that human rights in the kingdom are “zero.”
“I mean, a Mormon missionary in Riyadh is, I assume, a dead Mormon missionary, or just an imprisoned Mormon missionary,” the congressman said.
“The question is are they exporting terrorism. Two ways that they can export terrorism. One is to finance the people that actually blow things up. Here’s the money today. Blow something up tomorrow — 9/11 support, of course, that is the focus of the 28 pages.”
But the other, Sherman stressed, “is to finance a propaganda education machine, designed to teach millions of people that blowing things up is a good idea.”
“The House of Saud and the Wahhabis have an alliance that goes back to the 1700s. I can’t fault them if they if they finance efforts to say, hey, you should strictly follow Islam. Pray five times a day, don’t slough off and do four,” the congressman continued. “But we’re not talking about just orthodox practice… who teach that if you, if you have a, you know, you’re going to hell if you have a ham sandwich. That’s a certain intolerance. It’s when you start advocating blowing things up.”
Rohrabacher said “irrational optimism” is “when someone gets beaten in the head a number of times, and thinks they can do the same exact thing without getting beat in the head.”
“The Saudis have been financing terrorism now for 20 years at least — at least… I say that the Saudi royal family has made itself clear that they do not deserve the benefit of the doubt because of all of their actions they’ve been involved in,” the California Republican said.
“…It’s either we’re going to face reality or there’s going to be more and more of our people slaughtered. And I think how we deal with Saudi Arabia, it’s either going to be realistic or our people are going to suffer the consequences.”