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White House: Obama Unlikely to Sign 'Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act'

  • Aru Pande

White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, April 18, 2016.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, April 18, 2016.

Despite calls from victims’ families, the White House says President Barack Obama likely would not sign legislation that could allow countries like Saudi Arabia to be sued for any role officials may have played in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

“The whole notion of sovereign immunity is at stake. And it is one that has more significant consequences for the United States than any other country,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday.

The “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” would allow 9/11 families to sue foreign states and financial partners of terrorism.

The legislation is receiving increased scrutiny following a report in The New York Times that quoted Saudi officials who said the Arab kingdom would sell off billions of dollars in U.S. assets if Congress passes such a measure.

When asked about the bill during Monday’s briefing, White House spokesman Earnest said given the list of concerns about the legislation, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the president would sign it as it is currently drafted.

“This question of sovereign immunity is something that protects the ability of the United States to work closely with countries all around the world,” the press secretary noted. “Walking back that principle would put the United States, our taxpayers and our service members and diplomats at risk.”

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joins Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders for the GCC ministerial meetings in Manama, Bahrain, April 7, 2016.

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joins Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders for the GCC ministerial meetings in Manama, Bahrain, April 7, 2016.

The comments come just a day before Obama travels to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf Cooperation Council summit on Thursday, with talks expected to focus on the fight against the Islamic State militant group, the Iran nuclear agreement and its destabilizing activities in the region.

Earnest called Saudi Arabia an important U.S. counterterrorism partner. He acknowledged that while the two countries “do not agree on everything,” differences should be resolved through diplomacy.

The White House spokesman also downplayed Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir's comments that the kingdom would be forced to sell off some $750 billion in U.S. assets before U.S. courts potentially freeze them.

“The Saudi government recognizes that both our countries and our economies benefit from the smooth functioning of the global financial system. And it’s not in their interests to destabilize it,” Earnest told reporters.

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