Terrorist Claims Return September 11 Suit to Spotlight

James Risen The New York Times

WASHINGTON— Ron Motley could have come straight out of a John Grisham novel, a charismatic Southern trial lawyer with the swagger of a man who had bet big in life and usually won.

He rose to wealth and fame by vanquishing one seemingly unbeatable legal foe after another — first the asbestos industry, then Big Tobacco. Finally, he focused on what was arguably his toughest target of all: Saudi Arabia, which he saw as helping finance the September 11, 2001, attacks.

In 2002, Mr. Motley sued in federal court on behalf of the families of September 11 victims against the government of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi elite, including banks, charities and even members of the royal family, accusing them of financing Al Qaeda. But the lawsuit, which lacked a smoking gun proving Saudi complicity, became mired in endless procedural delays, and Mr. Motley, its original champion, died in 2013.

Last week, though, the case drew headlines when lawyers for the families disclosed that Zacarias Moussaoui, a former Qaeda operative now in federal prison, had told them that members of Saudi Arabia’s royal family had been major donors to the terrorist organization in the late 1990s.

While those claims were quickly challenged by some foreign policy experts and rejected by Saudi officials, the assertions helped bring the once simmering issue of possible Saudi involvement in the 9/11 attacks back into public view and renewed awareness of the lawsuit, which has occupied the federal court docket for almost the entire 21st century.

“When I began this, I would never have guessed that I would have spent so much of my legal career on one case,” said Sean Carter, a lawyer for plaintiffs in the case. “There are times when it is exhausting, but everyone is committed to see it through.”

He and other lawyers continue to steer the Motley lawsuit and a series of others that have been consolidated into one giant legal action in federal court in Manhattan. Over the years, the case has suffered so many delays and false starts, endured so many ups and downs, that it has sometimes been compared to Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the endless legal drama at the heart of Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House.” The case has also provoked strange questions about whether some investigators hired by the lawyers for the victims’ families were also working for the American government on unrelated intelligence operations at the same time. Those questions led to a secret investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general into the relationship between the investigators and the F.B.I.

When they began their legal campaign against the Saudis in the heated aftermath of September 11, Mr. Motley and other lawyers adopted a shotgun approach, naming hundreds of institutions and individuals as defendants.

Today, some lawyers involved in the case acknowledge that that approach was a mistake, because it led to wasted years of procedural fights as many of the defendants sought to be removed from the case.

“Turn the clock back 13 years, I would have preferred a more focused case,” said Jim Kreindler, one of the lawyers for the September 11 families. “But we stayed alive.”

Many of the original defendants succeeded in getting dismissed from the case — including the Saudi government and members of the royal family, who argued that they were protected by the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity, which grants recognized nations immunity from the reach of American courts.

But after the government and royal family members were dismissed in 2005, lawyers for the plaintiffs appealed, beginning a lengthy legal war to get them brought back in. Finally, in 2013, an appeals court reversed its own decision and ruled that the victims’ families could pursue their case against the Saudi government. The ruling did not extend to the individual members of the Saudi royal family who had been dismissed, but it still gave the lawsuit new life and a new focus, with far fewer defendants.

“We started with five or six hundred defendants, including governments of several countries — it was painted with a broad brush in the beginning,” Mr. Kreindler said. “Now it is primarily focused on the government of Saudi Arabia.”

But the Saudi government is fighting back, and is scrambling once again to be removed from the case. The Moussaoui statements were filed with the court by the lawyers for the 9/11 families as part of a larger response to the Saudi government’s latest motion for dismissal.

Mr. Kreindler estimated that the continuing fight over whether the Saudi government should stay in the lawsuit could take yet another three years, as the issue winds its way once more through the legal system. He predicted it could end up before the Supreme Court, which has already dealt with the case three times, twice declining to hear appeals from the plaintiffs and once declining to hear an appeal from the defendants, according to lawyers involved in the case.

The lawyers for the families now hope Congress will short-circuit the process by passing legislation that would prevent the doctrine of foreign sovereign immunity from protecting countries that provide support to terrorism.

After several lawsuits were consolidated in Federal District Court in New York in 2003, the giant case was given to Judge Richard Conway Casey, the nation’s first blind federal trial judge, and after his death in 2007, the case was transferred to Judge George Daniels. In 2010, lawyers for the September 11 families filed to have Judge Daniels removed from the case because he was too slow, but the effort failed.

By far the most mysterious episode in the case revolves around some of the investigators Mr. Motley brought in to investigate Saudi Arabia. Working through a small investigative firm called Rosetta Research and Consulting, which was formed to work on the case, some of the investigators also became involved in operations with the F.B.I. and later the Drug

Enforcement Administration. Most notably, they were involved in an operation to lure an Afghan drug lord to the United States. In 2005, they persuaded the Afghan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, to go to New York, where he was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration. He has since been convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The role of the investigators from the September 11 lawsuit in the Noorzai operation was baffling and embarrassing to many top officials in the government, and the connections between the investigators and the F.B.I. prompted an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general, which never made its findings public. Mr. Motley and his firm, Motley Rice, ultimately cut their ties, and Rosetta collapsed.

Today, the lawyers for the September 11 families have seen so many changes of fortune that they are careful not to describe Mr. Moussaoui’s statements as a breakthrough. But in carefully chosen words of optimism, the lawyers do describe the new statements as adding to the evidence they need to make their case.


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