9/11 bill allowing lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, others survives Obama veto

"If the Saudi government had no involvement in 9/11, it has nothing to fear. But if it was culpable then it should be held accountable," Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday.
By Allen Cone and Doug G. Ware  |  Updated Sept. 28, 2016 at 8:08 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama's effort to shield foreign governments from lawsuits by relatives of 9/11 victims, believing the legal actions would cause more harm than good, was in vain.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate on Wednesday each voted to override the president's veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which will now go into law and permit 9/11 families to take civil action against governments shown to be sponsors of terrorism, including Saudi Arabia.

Obama's veto was first superseded by the Senate, by a vote of 97-1, and then the House, 348-77. The lone dissenter in the Senate was Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Two senators who were not present were Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Among those who dissented in the House were Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Rep. Darrell Issa, D-Calif., Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. One voted "present" and five abstained from voting.

The override is the first of Obama's presidency after 12 vetoes were not overridden. The president vetoed the bill Friday.

In his veto message to Congress, Obama said Americans would be opened up to similar lawsuits from foreign nations and it would infringe on his administration's ability to conduct foreign policy.

"I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who have suffered grievously. I also have a deep appreciation of these families' desire to pursue justice and am strongly committed to assisting them in their efforts," Obama wrote in the letter.

However, most Republicans and many Democrats in both chambers of Congress did not see eye-to-eye with the president on the matter.

"Both parties will come together," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the bill's lead authors, said. "The families of the victims of 9/11 deserve their day in court, and justice for those families shouldn't be thrown overboard because of diplomatic concerns."

A single white flower lies on a panel that lists the names of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center complex. Wednesday, Congress voted to override President Barack Obama's veto of a bill allowing 9/11 families to sue foreign governments shown to be complicit in the attacks. File Photo by Mike Segar/UPI

The number of Democrats who voted for the override came as a surprise to some political analysts and may be a compromise by Democrats in exchange for greater Republican support on other legislation, such as recent congressional efforts to strip down the president's health care law.

The new law allows relatives of victims to sue foreign nations deemed to be sponsors of terror and complicit in attacks on U.S. soil. Although the law practically opens up all nations to civil actions, its impact on Saudi Arabia has been particularly noted, as it's been alleged that the government in Riyadh had some connection to the 9/11 attacks.

"If the Saudi government had no involvement in 9/11, it has nothing to fear. But if it was culpable then it should be held accountable," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Wednesday.

Operatives tied to the Saudi government, some allege, developed the plot to hijack airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the attacks.

Speculation over the Saudis' involvement reached a fever pitch due to 28 heavily-redacted pages of the federal government's official 2004 investigation into the attacks. Much of the redaction was removed earlier this year and noted the possible Saudi links.

The 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism sent a letter to Congress on Tuesday urging lawmakers to override "the President's unjustifiable veto."

"I mean, do we have a democracy or does Saudi Arabia own us?" Terry Strada, the group's national chairwoman who drove to Washington from New Jersey to lobby for the override, told USA Today.

The Obama administration believes the bill could open the legal floodgates on both sides, hamper U.S.-Saudi relations and negatively impact foreign policy matters. CIA Director John Brennan warned the bill could have "grave implications" for national security and Defense Secretary Ash Carter said it might "undermine" counter-terrorism efforts abroad.

Obama did not immediately comment on the overrides Wednesday but earlier this month the White House said the potential repercussions are serious.

"It's not hard to imagine other countries using this law as an excuse to haul U.S. diplomats or U.S. service members or even U.S. companies into courts all around the world," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

Congress was able to override George W. Bush four times, when Democrats had control of both chambers. Bill Clinton was overriden twice. Harry S. Truman and Gerald Ford had the most overrides in the modern era, with 12 each.

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