Sean Carter, one of the lead lawyers in the 9/11 families’ and victims ongoing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, spoke with Breitbart News on Monday after taking note of last week’s article “Terror Ties May Allow Pensacola Victims to Sue Saudi Arabia Under 9/11 Law.”
Carter offered his insights on the longstanding legal action filed by the families of 9/11 victims against the government of Saudi Arabia, the game-changing Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), and the prospects that victims of the attack perpetrated in Pensacola by a Saudi pilot trainee might pursue their own legal action under JASTA.
Carter was keenly aware that the slow pace of the 9/11 lawsuit, even after the passage of JASTA in 2016, made the story drop off the public radar. He said the suit is moving forward and depositions from Saudi officials can be expected in the near future.
On the subject of those depositions, he addressed criticism that lawsuits filed under JASTA could force U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies to disclose sensitive information about the 9/11 attacks, potentially jeopardizing investigations that are still in progress. Carter described those concerns as “overstated” and said much of the information provided during the discovery process by the Saudi government has not been sensitive enough to justify keeping it under seal, and it remains “unclear to us” just how active the FBI’s investigations might be after so many years.
“There’s the possibility that it’s being retained in an active status to enhance claims of privilege by the FBI so they don’t have to turn everything over to us,” he said. “We really do think that virtually all of this information could and should be in the public domain.”
“We don’t think they’re being as forthcoming and forward-leaning as they should be in producing documents to us,” he said of the FBI. “There’s this whole fight going on behind the scenes about whether information relating to this criminal investigation that’s implicated Saudi government employees rises to the level of being a state secret. We don’t think it is.”
Carter noted that protection for state secrets has historically been interpreted by the courts to cover sensitive military, intelligence, and diplomatic information, but it has not previously been applied to “criminal investigations about murders on U.S. soil,” as in the case of the 9/11 attack.
Carter said the Saudis have a track record of attempting to “pull every lever available to them to persuade U.S. government agencies to hold back on the information being made available” to opposing counsel and the general public.
“Information is not supposed to be classified to protect another government from embarrassment,” he noted. “There’s a concern that what’s happening here is that information that’s not that sensitive is being withheld to protect the Saudis from embarrassment, because there’s a concern that the Saudis, if embarrassed, would turn around and limit cooperation with the U.S. government on various fronts.”
Carter described some of the resistance to providing 9/11 information by U.S. government agencies, stretching back across the past few administrations, as “an effort by executive branch agencies to undo what Congress did” when it passed JASTA over former President Barack Obama’s veto and “win the arguments they already lost.”
He argued history has been kind to JASTA and its supporters, since none of the negative consequences proposed by its opponents, including Obama, have come to pass during the three years since its passage. In fact, he denounced Obama’s major argument against the bill – a warning that Americans overseas could face legal reprisals or even extralegal attacks if terrorism lawsuits against foreign governments were allowed to proceed – as “incredibly misleading and disingenuous, particularly the warnings about potential suits against veterans.”
“At the end of the day, we were right,” he said of JASTA proponents. “All the reciprocity stuff was completely overstated. There’s been no adverse consequences whatsoever to the enactment of JASTA.”
“The Obama administration did not want this to go through. The Saudis already had their feathers ruffled over the Iran nuclear deal. We think it has a lot more to do with trying to placate the Saudis at that time, over their anger about that issue, and that the reciprocity stuff was just sort of a public argument to be made to provide some basis for the opposition – but not the real one,” he said.
Carter did not expect the Saudi government to do much to help the Pensacola families voluntarily, despite encouraging statements by various U.S. officials to the contrary, including President Donald Trump.
“Take a look at the 9/11 situation,” he advised. “Whatever you want to say about the technical merits of legal liability, and whether or not Saudi government employees acting in the scope of their agency were directly involved in the attacks of 9/11, it was certainly not really debatable that the Saudis had tremendous moral culpability for putting out the ideology that had fueled al-Qaeda, throwing money into organizations that were channeling it right out the back door to terrorist organizations. So there was ample reason for the Saudis to have stepped up post-9/11, and they didn’t do it.”
“What they’ve done instead is, at every point, resisted any inquiry into their responsibility,” he continued. “They falsely claimed the 9/11 Commission had exonerated them, when it hadn’t. They’ve just tried to dodge the evidence, and the accountability, at every turn.”
“My sense is that whatever people have said about Pensacola, the Saudis are going to resist doing anything voluntarily, because they’ll be concerned about setting a precedent that they do need to step up and compensate people voluntarily when their citizens do things like this. The reality is, they have more than a few citizens who have gotten involved in this kind of activity, so they’re going to be very worried about it,” he predicted.
Carter thought the Pensacola families do have a viable claim against the Saudi government under JASTA.
“The JASTA claim in this particular instance with [Pensacola killer Mohammed] Alshamrani would probably be based on the horrific, grossly negligent, and reckless way that they went about vetting him before deciding to send him to the United States under the auspices of the government,” Carter suggested. Alshamrani was an officer in the Saudi Royal Air Force in Pensacola to participate in a training program.
“What seems to be emerging is that there was ample reason based on his social media activity to recognize that he was a potentially problematic actor, and a risk to people in the United States should he be sent here,” Carter said.
“The two possibilities are that the Saudis really did not look at his social media history at all in the course of vetting him, which would be tremendously irresponsible, and I don’t really think is the case. I think the more likely scenario is that they actually did look at his social media profile and simply didn’t take steps that should have been taken to exclude him from a program of this nature,” he said.
Carter said JASTA provides “a basis to sue a foreign government for its malicious acts contributing to an act of international terrorism on U.S. soil,” since the failure to properly vet Alshamrani “seems to rise way above the level of mere negligence from my perspective, based on what’s known right now.” He wondered if more Saudis might be ejected from temporarily suspended military training programs upon review, and what that would say about the poor quality of the reviews performed on the Saudi end.
Carter saw similarities between the Pensacola case and that of California cleric Fahad al-Thumairy, who was implicated in helping the 9/11 hijackers.
“It later turns out that the U.S. decides to exclude him from the United States based on concerns he might have been linked to terrorism. There was information available that he might have been leading an extremist faction at King Fahd Mosque out in Los Angeles and that he held anti-American views,” he recalled.
“It’s a similar scenario where you have the government sending someone here to the United States under the auspices of a government program who, it turns out, holds deeply anti-American views. I do think that at some point, they need to be held accountable for doing that,” he said of the Saudi government.
Carter noted that while establishing a firm link between the Pensacola shooter and a global terrorist organization like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda would make “the gross negligence associated with the vetting of this guy even worse,” such firm connections to organized terrorism are not required to bring action under JASTA.
“The critical showing that needs to be made is that it was an act of international terrorism, and that has a lot to do with whether or not it was intended to intimidate civilian populations or affect the policies of government,” he explained. “I think that that’s certainly the case here, based on what we know about what Alshamrani was trying to accomplish.”
“It makes it worse, but I already think it’s bad enough,” he said of the pending investigation into Alshamrani’s background, adding that the current standards for connecting terrorists to global organizations are a bit too “inflexible” for the era of ISIS and the “lone wolves” inspired by its rhetoric.
“Sovereignty isn’t merely a right – it’s a responsibility,” he said of Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the actions of individuals like Alshamrani and the 9/11 hijackers, and exporting the extremist ideology that drives them. “They have to be responsible for the threats that are emanating from their own country and society.”
Carter said the U.S. government should be “more forthcoming with evidence so that the public is better informed” and could have a more robust debate about programs such as the training initiative that brought Alshamrani to Pensacola. He argued that the shortage of disclosure is intentional.
“A lot of policymakers would prefer to have control over that. They think that the public, in general, is incapable of adequately assessing this kind of information and do the balancing tests necessary. But that’s not the way it’s supposed to work,” he said.
“If the 9/11 litigation against the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] had been permitted to go forward when it should have gone forward, back in 2003, without the need for us to spend 13 years litigating and finally getting JASTA, I think we’d be in a better place, and I think the Saudis would have been forced long ago to deal with these problems more aggressively,” he said.