In a decisive break with the Obama administration, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have backed legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for any role the government may have had in the 2001 terror plot.
Just two days before the crucial New York primary, the Democratic candidates released statements hours apart supporting New York Senator Chuck Schumer's Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). The legislation has been submitted three times since 2011, but received renewed traction this month after a 60 Minutes investigation again looked into possible funding ties between Saudi officials and 9/11 terrorists. Schumer and Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is a member of Republican leadership, reintroduced the bipartisan bill some seven months ago.
The Obama administration has lobbied vehemently against the bill, fearing a diplomatic fallout with its Middle East ally. And there could also be economic consequences: Saudi Arabia has threatened to cash out of American assets worth billions, if the legislation succeeds. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned US officials about those consequences during a visit to Washington last month, the New York Times reported over the weekend.
When asked to weigh in on the bill in separate television interviews on Sunday, both Clinton and Sanders said they did not know enough about the legislation to say whether or not they could support it.
But by Sunday night, both candidates had cleared up their positions. Shortly after the ABC appearance, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill tweeted a statement saying that the former secretary of state supports Schumer's legislation and pledging to work with Congress "to hold accountable those responsible" for the 9/11 attacks, if elected to the White House.
Hours later, the Sanders campaign released a statement to the same effect, but also called for the government to declassify a not-yet-released section of a report produced by a Senate inquiry into events leading up to and immediately following the attacks. The Senate's Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001, report includes a 28-page section that reportedly details "foreign support for the September 11 hijackers." And there is currently a bipartisan House resolution urging the president to release it. The long controversial section is the focus of the 60 Minutes report that has brought the legislation back into the spotlight this week.
"The families of those lost on that terrible day have the right to review any evidence that connects the hijackers to foreign supporters, including potentially those in Saudi Arabia," the Sanders campaign said in the statement. "If no such connection exists, then our country deserves the information necessary to put that speculation behind us."
"I understand that the Obama administration is conducting a review to declassify that section of the commission report, and I would urge them to declassify this information as soon as possible," the campaign added.
There has been no definitive link between 9/11 terrorists and Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have routinely denied any involvement in the al Qaeda attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
"The idea that the Saudi government funded, organized, or even knew about September 11 is malicious and blatantly false," Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a member of the royal family and an ambassador to the US from 1983 to 2005, said in 2003.
The 9/11 Commission said in its own report on the attacks that there was, "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization." Yet there are persisting allegations about ties between the hijackers and lower-level Saudi officials living in the US at the time of the attack. These were reinforced by the 2002 joint inquiry and speculation about the classified 28 pages. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi.
At a press conference announcing the resolution to declassify the redacted section of the report in January, 2015, former Senator Bob Graham, who co-chaired the 2002 intelligence inquiry, said that the 28 pages "point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier" of the attacks.
To critics, the White House's refusal to unseal the section, claiming it would damage national security, is reaffirmation of efforts by several administrations to stifle information that could implicate Saudi officials. The Obama administration has tried to lobby members of Congress against Schumer's bill, officials and congressional aides told the New York Times.
Families of 9/11 victims have been particularly vocal about the alleged coverup of information implicating Saudi Arabia in the attacks. Over the years, they have tried unsuccessfully to sue Saudi entities, including members of the royal family, charities, and banks, but the lawsuits, brought in American courts, have failed largely because of sovereign immunity claims, which Schumer's bill aims to eviscerate.
JASTA would amend foreign immunity laws so that they could no longer be invoked by foreign actors involved in terrorist attacks conducted in the US. The legislation would also retroactively affect any civil action "arising out of an injury to a person, property, or business on or after September 11, 2001."
The 9/11 attacks remains one of the most deeply felt and damaging incidents ingrained in the consciousness of most New Yorkers who lived in the city when the World Trade Towers fell. Clinton, who served as a New York senator, alongside Schumer, at the time, has repeatedly referenced the incident while campaigning across the state in recent weeks.
During an event kicking off her New York presidential campaign in late March, Clinton highlighted her work on the James Zadroga 9/11 Health Insurance Act to provide healthcare to first responders who have suffered respiratory and other illnesses after inhaling toxic air at Ground Zero.
"Those eight eventful years I served you, there were some hard times, weren't there?" Clinton said at Harlem, New York's Apollo Theater, drawing murmurs of agreement from the crowd. "But we pulled together. None of us who lived through 9/11 and its aftermath will ever forget the lives lost."
Clinton's support for Schumer's bill is particularly notable in her decision to depart from the Obama administration's position. The Democratic frontrunner, who served as Obama's secretary of state, has sought to position herself as the president's natural successor and has vigorously defended his healthcare legislation, as well as his foreign policy goals in the Middle East.
Sanders, meanwhile, has been more vocal in his criticisms of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the US. On the campaign trail, the Vermont senator has frequently called on the oil-rich nation along with other wealthy Arab allies to take a bigger role in the fight against the Islamic State.
"Saudi Arabia is the third largest military budget in the world, they're going to have to get their hands dirty in this fight," Sanders told CNN in May. "We should be supporting [them], but at the end of the day this is [a] fight over what Islam is about, the soul of Islam, we should support those countries taking on ISIS."
On Monday, in an interview with NBC Today Show hosts, Sanders said that Saudi Arabia promotes an extreme and "very destructive" version of Islam.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that the 28 classified pages were a part of the 9/11 Commission's report on the terrorist attacks. The pages are part of a report produced by the Senate's Joint Inquiry Into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.