Witnesses sparred at a congressional hearing today over the possible consequences of a bill designed to open up litigation against foreign officials accused of financing terrorism.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1974 to allow lawsuits in limited circumstances. It is in part a response to a 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, affirming that Sept. 11 victims could not sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and four of its princes over charitable contributions that the plaintiffs said went to Al-Qaeda.
“The evidence is very, very forceful about the involvement of Saudi money in promoting terrorism,” Specter said today in chairing a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue. He said the threat of a lawsuit could deter those considering financing terrorism.
John Bellinger III, who served as the U.S. State Department legal adviser from 2005 to 2009, testified that the legislation could have unintended effects. It could, for example, allow critics of U.S. foreign policy to file lawsuits against U.S. officials or their allies, including Israel, he said.
“It would be very easy to accuse Leon Panetta or Bob Gates of orchestrating extrajudicial killings,” Bellinger said, adding that such lawsuits would be without merit but could consume time and resources. Bellinger is now a partner at Arnold & Porter.
Abraham Sofaer, the State Department legal adviser from 1985 to 1990, said those concerns are overblown because it is clearly not Congress’ intent to allow such lawsuits. Sofaer, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, praised the legislation: “If we lived in a civilized world, it would be one in which no Saudi prince or other prince could safely fund the killing of innocent civilians in any other country.”
Click here for the witnesses’ written testimony.