9/11 bill could open Pandora's box: Cohen

Bill Cohen: Concerns with US & Saudi Arabia relations
Bill Cohen: Concerns with US & Saudi Arabia relations

The President has gone to Saudi Arabia at an interesting time, former Defense Secretary William Cohen told CNBC on Wednesday.

Cohen's comments come as President Barack Obama met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday amid tensions regarding a proposed bill in Congress, which could make the Saudi government vulnerable to civil lawsuits. The president visits the Kingdom ahead of 2016's Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, where Cohen considers gulf leaders will have an opportunity to "lay out some of their complaints."

Saudi Arabia, a member of the GCC, has many concerns of its own, the former official said during an interview with "Closing Bell." Among these are: U.S.-Iranian relations and the nuclear deal, what the Saudis consider a lack of reaction from the U.S. to ISIL, intervention in Yemen, oil and of course, the bill at Congress, he said.

The White House reported on Wednesday that the two leaders, President Obama and the King, discussed accelerating campaigns against ISIL, hostilities in Yemen, the stabilization of certain Iraqi areas and "the challenges posed by Iran's provocative activities in the region," among other mutual concerns. The report did not say if the countries discussed the 9/11 bill proposed in Congress.

President Barack Obama walks toward Marine One upon his arrival at King Khalid International Airport for a summit meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia April 20, 2016.
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The bill would make it possible for Saudi officials to be held responsible for terrorist attacks in the United States related to 9/11. The families of victims are urging for the bill to be passed. Many government officials including President Obama have spoken out against the bill.

Cohen agreed and told CNBC on Wednesday that he thinks "we have to take care here that we don't do something that's going to open Pandora's box."

"I think the president is correct to say 'this is for the government to resolve.' If there's any allegation that's supportable, on the evidence that the Saudis were — at the governmental level — involved in 9/11, well, that would require the U.S. to take action against the Saudis, but it's not up to individuals to do that," he said.

At the same time, Cohen contended that while it's important to clear the air about the Saudis' role in the terrorist attacks, the 9/11 commission already concluded that no government or high-ranking Saudi official was involved.

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The expert noted, however, that a separate report of 28 pages that has not been declassified may open up the question of whether the Saudis were funding the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Still, "I think you have to rely on the 9/11 commission," he said. "If any of those members believed that the Saudis were involved and failed to voice that, then they would be engaged in a massive cover-up of unprecedented proportions," he told CNBC, adding that he doesn't believe that to be the case.

— CNBC's Tom DiChristopher contributed to this report.