Families of 9/11 victims might soon get day in court against Saudi officials
By JAMES ROSEN | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: March 11, 2017
BOCA RATON, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — The pain of Sept. 11, 2001, never goes away for Gina Cayne.
When the Boca Raton widow speaks of losing her husband as he worked on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, tears well in her eyes, her voice strains.
“They killed my husband,” she says, accusing Saudi officials of having financed the 9/11 attacks. “All I want is my day in court.”
She might be within weeks of getting it.
For more than 14 years, relatives of the nearly 3,000 people who died Sept. 11, 2001, battled Washington and several federal judges for the right to sue Saudi Arabia and the royal family in Riyadh — suspected by families and senior members of Congress of providing money and other support to the 19 attackers.
First, district and appellate courts in New York ruled — repeatedly — that a legal protection called “sovereign immunity” prevented the families from suing Saudi Arabia. Then Republican President George W. Bush and Democratic President Barack Obama stymied one effort after another by Congress to pass legislation that would overcome those court rulings and open a path for a case to proceed.
But the 9/11 families’ fortunes changed in September, when during a distracting, raucous 2016 presidential campaign, Congress delivered the only veto override of Obama’s eight-year tenure and made the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, settled law.
It has already had an effect: While JASTA was being debated, a federal judge in New York ordered Iran to pay the families and insurance companies $14 billion for having allowed some of the hijackers to enter and leave the country before Sept. 11 without having transit visas stamped in their passports. Such visas would have made it more difficult for them to enter the United States.
Now, the families are heading to court in the coming weeks, seeking a punitive payout that legal experts say could exceed $1 trillion.
THE FIGHT TO COME
But Saudi Arabia is not done fighting — in court or in Congress. Indeed, Riyadh looks ready to pump unprecedented sums into a lobbying effort to unwind the new law.
The Saudis have hired a team of Washington powerbrokers who have held senior White House and congressional posts going back decades, paying at least 17 firms in Washington, Houston, Cleveland, Denver and Alexandria, Va., more than $1 million a month to try to turn back the clock.
Tony Podesta, one of Washington’s top lobbyists and the brother of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager John Podesta, is among the top figures on the team of influential insiders.
“This is one of the biggest lobbying efforts in the history of our country,” James Kreindler, lead attorney for the 9/11 families, told McClatchy.
This time, though, the families can boast of an advantage they’ve never had before — a president who supports their right to sue. President Donald Trump, a native New Yorker, vowed on the campaign trail to do everything he could to help the families, and those families believe he will stand by them even if Saudi money succeeds in turning Congress against a law it just passed.
“There’s no question Trump would veto that,” said Bill Doyle, a retired Wall Street stockbroker who lost his son. “He lived only 30 blocks from ground zero. He was down there constantly after the attacks.”
On Sept. 10, 2001, Matthew Sellitto and his son by the same name dropped the younger man’s Jeep 4x4 off at a Morristown, N.J., dealership for routine service.
They went to their home in Harding, an affluent hamlet 40 miles west of the Hudson River. On a clear day you could look across the river and see the World Trade Center over southern Manhattan.
High up in the World Trade Center’s north tower, the younger Sellitto worked at the world headquarters of Cantor Fitzgerald, a financial services firm that handled a quarter of all U.S. Treasury security transactions. And that night, father and son joined mother and brother to celebrate Matthew’s promotion to a permanent position on Cantor’s interest rate swaps desk.
The former Seton Hall Prep School hockey star and University of Vermont economics major, still just 23, was elated. His parents were proud.
The next morning, father and son awoke when the alarm went off at 4:20 a.m. Sellitto drove his son to nearby Convent Station to catch the 5:15 a.m. New Jersey Transit train into Manhattan.
More than 15 years later, that short car ride still haunts the father.
Like many other 9/11 families, Matthew and Loreen Sellitto couldn’t bear to remain in the New York area after the attacks. For the tens of thousands of visitors who pour into Manhattan each day, ground zero became a hallowed shrine and a tourist attraction. But for those whose loved ones were murdered there, it was an open sore that never healed no matter the towers or memorials that were built on top of it.
Florida drew more of the 9/11 exiles than any other state — at least 100 families, along with relatives of dozens of retired firemen and police who rushed into the doomed towers, according to a government database with the names and contact information for the victims’ relatives.
The Sellittos ended up on Florida’s Gulf Coast, in Naples.
“I got him to the train on time,” Matthew Sellitto said. “I said ‘goodbye, goodbye,’ as you normally do. ‘I love you, I love you. See you later.’
The retired New Jersey real estate developer paused.
“He got out of the car and got on the train. I went home. A little later in the morning, I started to get ready for the day. About five to nine, I get a phone call. I let the answering machine pick it up because I was getting ready to leave. And I hear on the voice message:
““Dad, Dad, Mom, Dad!’ I hear it’s my son at the World Trade Center. So I pick the phone up.
“He said, ‘Dad, Dad, a freaking plane just flew through the building!’
“And I’m thinking — a little plane.
“So I said, ‘Well, get out of the building.’ He said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand — we can’t get out! I’m just calling to tell you guys I love you.’
“He says, ‘I got to go.’
“I even asked: ‘What are you guys doing?’
“He said, ‘We’re saying the Lord’s Prayer.’
“And that was it. The call ended. He hung up the phone. That’s the last time I heard from my son Matthew.”
Less than a year after the attacks, 9/11 families filed suit in the U.S. Southern District Court of New York in lower Manhattan.
The lawsuit accused almost 150 people, companies and organizations across the Middle East and beyond as having helped carry out the 9/11 attacks.
One group of defendants was obvious: Osama bin Laden, Taliban chief Mullah Omar and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani-born head of al-Qaida propaganda and self-professed plotter of the 9/11 attacks. He would be captured March 1, 2003, and is being held with other alleged terrorists at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the families didn’t stop there. Their suit accused officials and government agencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as well as Muslim banks, relief groups, youth leagues and charitable organizations around the globe and even groups in Washington state, Minnesota, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the United States.
Named too were some of the most prominent Saudis.
“Upon information and belief, there were and are a large number of Saudi citizens and members of the Saudi royal family who support bin Laden,” the suit charged. “High-ranking officials in the Saudi government and Saudi businessmen have provided money to support bin Laden and al Qaeda.”
The legal brief zeroed in.
“Upon information and belief, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Saudi defense minister, and Prince Nayeff bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Saudi minister of the interior, have provided hundreds of millions of dollars to bin Laden and al Qaida,” it said. (Prince Nayeff bin Abdulaziz al Saud is now crown prince, making him heir to the Saudi throne.) “That funding enabled bin Laden to pursue his terror agenda.”
Over the next dozen years, before several suits were consolidated into one, federal judges would rule that it was the president, not the courts, who held authority to designate a foreign country as a terrorist supporter. The Saudi government, the judges decided, had “sovereign immunity” from lawsuits under longstanding U.S. law.
During the same period, most 9/11 families accepted large payments — $2.1 million on average — from a special compensation fund established by Congress. In exchange, they gave up their right to sue the U.S. government, American airlines or other companies, while retaining the power to file suit against “knowing participants in the hijacking conspiracy.”
But 70 families refused to accept payments. Some felt the money was too little, too late; others didn’t want to limit their legal rights.
Gina Cayne was one of the 70. To her, the payments were hush money. She wanted a judge or a jury to determine who is guilty of having murdered her husband.
Loreen Sellitto rejected the cash too. She and her husband simmered with anger as they watched Prince Bandar bin Sultan visit Bush’s ranch in Texas and Obama meet with other Saudi leaders.
“I want my opportunity to prove that they were co-conspirators by giving money to al-Qaida,” Matthew Sellitto said of these Saudi leaders.
His voice rose.
“Their money killed my son! Who are they that they can get away with it? Are they that much bigger than the rest of the world that they can get away with it?”
And then he began to shout.
“I don’t play like it’s not about the money. No, it is! I want their money! And I want as much of it as I can get. I want it! Who are they to have that money? I want it! They used that money to murder my son!”
DE FACTO LEADER
Bill Doyle is one of the de facto leaders of the families group pushing to sue. The retired stockbroker now lives in The Villages, a gated sprawling enclave of 157,000 affluent people spread over thousands of acres 60 miles northwest of Orlando.
Like Trump, the man for whom Doyle enthusiastically voted and claims to have been chummy with in the Big Apple, the new Floridian is prone to making brash statements that emphasize his connections in high places and put him in the middle of the action.
Except for when he discusses Joseph Doyle, the 25-year-old son he lost on Sept. 11.
The younger Doyle was working for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 101st floor when American Airlines Flight 11 struck it between the 93rd and 99th floors.
Like Matthew Sellitto, Joseph Doyle had just been promoted. Unlike Sellitto, Doyle was not able to call his parents to say goodbye.
“I did get a driver’s license and a credit card,” his father said quietly. “That’s the only part of my son I have.”
Bill Doyle threw himself into making the tragedy’s perpetrators pay for their crime. He contacted lawyers and lawmakers, made frequent trips to Washington, and devoured everything he could read about the attacks.
Doyle attended frequent sessions in New York, on Monday nights, with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, his aides and several lawyers.
Another regular at the meetings with Giuliani was Lee Ielpi, a New York City firefighter who spent nine months digging out bodies at ground zero. On Oct. 12, he carried his son, also a firefighter, from the rubble.
Now living in Osprey, south of Sarasota, Ielpi is not interested in the Saudis’ money. He wants to see them in court.
“I want this brought into the open,” Ielpi told McClatchy last month. “People say the families just want money. Bull----! It’s not about the money. People need to be brought to justice. There were people in Saudi Arabia, whatever positions they were in, who knew the people that committed this crime — who were involved with the people who committed this crime, who met them in California. If in fact it can be proved that the country or higher-ups within the country were involved, we should sue them for everything we can get.”
Over the years, Doyle has become a one-man information clearinghouse as the families seek justice.
“I’m probably the chief advocate for 9/11 families,” Doyle said. “It started from Day One. All the families were running around in circles,” Doyle said. “I saw the need that those people had to be united.”
Doyle painstakingly assembled a database with all their contact information and details of loss, later sharing it with the government.
Like others, Doyle concluded that it was impossible for the hijackers — with few independent means, low education and limited English — to have acted alone. And so he focused on the men that he became certain were the hijackers’ sponsors — senior Saudi officials and members of the royal family.
Over the next decade, Doyle worked with lawmakers and attorneys to craft legislation that would enable the families to sue the Saudi government.
According to Doyle, he and the families’ lawyers had frequent contact with Bush and Obama administration officials in the State and Justice Departments, addressing their concerns over a bill that would eventually be called the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
But that wasn’t his only angle. He wanted the federal government to release the Saudi section of the intelligence committees’ 2003 report on 9/11’s causes.
So on Sept. 11, 2011, when Obama traveled to ground zero to mark the 10th anniversary of the attack, Doyle was there. At a private lunch afterward, he confronted Obama.
“He got up and he said to me, ‘I will get them released,’” Doyle recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, God bless, thank you.’
“For five years nothing happened.”
Beyond making the Saudis pay billions to the families, Doyle has a more visceral goal: He wants to see Prince Bandar punished.
While serving as Saudi ambassador to the United States, Bandar became one of the capital’s most prominent diplomats. Bandar smoked cigars, wore Western clothes and spoke English impeccably. He often delighted his U.S. hosts by quoting corny American sayings. Now Crown Prince and retired in Saudi Arabia, Bandar served as head of its intelligence apparatus from 2012 to 2014.
The 28 pages suggest that money from Bandar was funneled to two of the Saudi hijackers through an intermediary suspected of being an intelligence agent for Riyadh.
“I want my day in court and (to) get his ass in jail,” Doyle said.
Doyle holds special contempt for James Baker, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush and earlier as White House chief of staff for Bush and President Ronald Reagan. Baker Botts, the Houston law firm that his father had helped found, defended the Saudi royal family in the 9/11 families’ lawsuit.
And it was that law firm that helped convince federal judges to reject the families’ suit.
The federal court rulings that shielded Saudi Arabia sparked a bitter battle on Capitol Hill and at the White House to change the law granting sovereign immunity to foreign governments.
The then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Florida’s Bob Graham, was at the center of it.
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, Graham began to see raw intelligence suggesting that the Saudi hijackers had not acted alone. He learned that before the attacks, some of them had met with senior Saudi officials both in the oil-rich kingdom and in California, where several had lived.
Graham would later learn, thanks in part to stories in the Florida Bulldog and the Miami Herald, of a wealthy Saudi family in his home state that had befriended other of the hijackers in Florida, and then fled their Sarasota home just weeks before 9/11.
As the coming weeks turned into months, Graham helped lead the first congressional investigation of the attacks, co-authoring a report based on 500 interviews that said communication breakdowns within and among the FBI, the CIA and other federal and local intelligence and law-enforcement agencies had contributed to the failure to uncover the 9/11 plot.
But when the House-Senate Joint Inquiry report was released after a seven-month review by U.S. intelligence agencies, its authors noticed an omission; the final 28-page chapter, examining possible Saudi ties to attacks.
That redaction bothered Graham so much that for the next 13 years, while still in Congress and then after he retired in January 2005, he made it his mission to get the missing 28 pages released.
“My wife says that I failed at retirement. I would agree with her,” Graham said with a chuckle over a recent lunch on the patio of his Miami Lakes office. “There’s been an injustice to these Americans who suffered so grievously in 9/11. And it has emboldened the Saudis. Since they’ve received not even the mildest form of a complaint from the United States for what they’ve done, they’ve interpreted that as being impunity. They can do whatever they want to do. And they have continued to finance terrorists.”
As he pursued his quest to uncover the truth, Graham had some strange encounters.
In November 2011, Graham and his wife got off a flight from Florida at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, where they had traveled to enjoy Thanksgiving with their daughter. Although the senator had not informed the government of his itinerary, he said two FBI agents met him at the gate. According to Graham, they handed his wife an FBI manual to read and whisked him away to the agency’s secret office in another part of the airport.
Then-Deputy Director Sean M. Joyce was waiting, according to Graham, and delivered an unusually blunt message, especially one directed to a former governor and retired U.S. senator who had held the highest security clearance a lawmaker can hold.
“He basically said that everything to be found out about the situation with Saudi Arabia and 9/11 had been learned, that I was wasting my time and I should get a life and do something more productive,” Graham recalled.
Graham chuckled again.
“Obviously I didn’t accept his information or his suggestion very well,” he said.
In another episode, Graham said he learned that an FBI agent in Tampa had done a probe and found many connections between the wealthy Saudi family that had fled Sarasota just before the 9/11 attacks and three Saudi hijackers then living there.
Pressed by Graham on why they had never released the findings, the FBI questioned the agent’s competence.
“Why did they appoint to what was clearly going to be a very important inquiry someone they didn’t have full confidence in?” Graham asked.
The FBI declined multiple requests to respond to Graham’s assertions.
The U.S. government released the long-withheld congressional intelligence chapter on possible Saudi ties on July 26, 2016. Although partially redacted, the 28 pages revealed hints but no proof of official Saudi involvement in the terror attacks.
Focusing on three hijackers who had lived in Southern California, the section revealed their interaction with two possible Saudi intelligence agents and their friendship in San Diego with a Saudi man, Osama Basnan, who lived across the street from two of them.
After the attacks, Basnan told an FBI undercover agent that he had helped the hijackers, was an avid supporter of bin Laden and had cashed a $15,000 check from an account belonging to Saudi Prince Bandar, who at the time was his government’s ambassador to the United States, according to the report.
Both the Saudi government and the Obama administration said the secret section showed, as the then-White House press secretary Josh Earnest put it, “no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi individuals funded al-Qaida.”
Graham disagreed, and still does.
“It points a strong finger at Saudi Arabia’s involvement,” he said.
“It has been the primary funder of the regional offshoots of al-Qaida in Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere,” he said. “It has continued to operate madrassas throughout the Middle East, North Africa and particularly in Pakistan. It has been a key source of money and fresh jihadists. I would not assume that Saudi Arabia is an important ally. I would even say I don’t think it is our ally, period.”
HEADING BACK TO COURT
A bipartisan group of lawmakers, working with Doyle, crafted the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act. While not mentioning Saudi Arabia by name, it authorizes Americans to sue any government that facilitates or carries out an act of terror on U.S. soil.
Bush, whose family has long-standing ties with the Saudi royals, helped block the measure, warning that it threatened to harm relations with a critical Arab ally. Two influential national security lawmakers, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, pressed their peers not to take it up.
But seven years later, with American sentiment shifting against Middle East entanglements, the legislation’s supporters not only got the bill introduced but saw it passed with overwhelming support in the House and Senate in 2016.
Citing similar concerns as Bush and warning the law would not protect Americans, Obama vetoed the measure Sept. 23. Five days later, the House and the Senate overrode that veto in a second set of bipartisan votes.
“We must not hold justice for the 9/11 families hostage to imagined fears,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who lost more constituents on Sept. 11 than any other representative, on the House floor.
“If the Saudi government was not complicit in the attack on 9/11, the plaintiffs will fail to prove such complicity in an American court,” he said. “Justice will have been served, and the Saudis will have been vindicated after years of suspicion. But if it is proven in an American court that the Saudi government was complicit in the attacks on 9/11, justice will have been served — and we, not the Saudis, will have justification to be very angry.”
In the nearly five months since JASTA became law, the families’ attorneys have been preparing to go back into court. They are tweaking previously filed documents and readying new ones with more recent information related to their claim, starting with details from the 28 pages.
They would also like to obtain an un-redacted version of that section of the 2003 congressional intelligence report’s section focusing on possible Saudi ties to 9/11.
But even with support from Trump’s White House, the 9/11 families are in for a fight — and an expensive one.
The Saudi government hired Washington lobbyists to get the law gutted as the new Congress began in January, paying them some $1.3 million a month.
Riyadh is also ramping up pressure on U.S. officials, threatening to retaliate against any suit by selling $750 billion in U.S. assets. In a terse statement a day after JASTA became law, the Saudi Foreign Ministry warned: “The erosion of sovereign immunity will have a negative impact on all nations, including the United States.”
The Saudi Embassy declined to comment despite repeated requests from McClatchy. Michael Kellogg, a lead attorney for Saudi Arabia in the case, also declined comment.
The Saudis take heart in a strange about-face by 28 senators who supported JASTA. Within hours of voting to override Obama’s veto, they wrote a letter to the bill’s chief sponsors, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, expressing second thoughts.
“If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the United States could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities,” they wrote.
Among the senators were Republicans Graham of South Carolina, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Jim Risch of Idaho, along with Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. The senators offered to work with Cornyn and Schumer “in a constructive manner to appropriately mitigate those unintended consequences.”
Last month, the Saudi lobbyists brought 20 to 40 veterans for three days of pressuring lawmakers to weaken JASTA, putting them up at Trump’s new luxury hotel in downtown Washington, according to Politico.
To counter the Saudis’ lobbying blitz, the families have assembled their own power team.
Some of the most prominent plaintiffs’ law firms are representing them, including Kreindler & Kreindler of New York, Motley Rice of South Carolina, and Ethridge Quinn of Maryland.
Jack Quinn, who served as White House chief counsel under President Bill Clinton and retains powerful connections in Washington, is helping the legal team craft strategy.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s simply no doubt that charities and other institutions associated in one way or another with the Saudi government, and individuals associated with the Saudi government, were providing material support to al Qaida, the designated terrorist organization that carried out this attack,” Quinn told McClatchy. “It is inevitable that the time will come, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when the Saudis will have to answer these allegations in court.”
The law firms are working pro bono. Having already donated tens of millions of dollars to the cause, they hope to recoup payment via a large settlement with the Saudi government.
Quinn and James Kreindler negotiated the 2003 deal in which Libya agreed to pay $2.7 billion to the families of 270 people killed Dec. 21, 1988, when Pam Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Gina Cayne is more interested in justice than money.
“I just want the people who helped to murder my husband and the other 3,000 people to be held accountable for their actions,” the Boca Raton widow told McClatchy last month. “I just don’t want to see his murder brushed under the rug. Hopefully we can stop them from killing any more Americans.”
Sellitto and Cayne have new hope that their court date will come. Doyle does too.
Just before Doyle’s wife died in 2012, she beseeched him to continue his quest to get justice for their son and the other Sept. 11 victims.
“One of the last things she said to me to me was, ‘Billy, don’t give up.’ And I said, ‘I’ll never give up.’”
Then, like so many others who lost loved ones on that horrendous day, Billy Doyle wept.
©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau
Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau at www.mcclatchydc.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.