The United States Congress has overwhelmingly rejected President Obama's veto of a bill that would permit relatives of those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia. In a 97 to 1 Senate vote, and 348 to 77 House decision, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) is set to become law. It will also be the first veto override of President Obama's two terms in office.
Of the 19 plane hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks, 15 were Saudi nationals, and over the course of the last fifteen years many have blamed that nation's ruling family for failing to rein in fundamentalist terrorism. As The Guardian points out, JASTA would allow courts to waive claims of immunity by foreign sovereigns in instances of terrorism committed within America's borders.
Earlier this summer, the U.S. government released documents from a 2002 congressional report outlining apparent ties between the Saudi Arabian government and the hijackers behind 9/11. According to that report, Saudi officials helped some of the hijackers find flight schooling and provided financial support while they lived in the U.S. Saudi Arabia has denied any connection to the 9/11 attacks and has come out in strong opposition to the new law.
“This is a decision I do not take lightly,” New York Senator Chuck Schumer said following the Senate's vote to override Obama's veto. “This bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker, because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice, finally giving them a legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from them the lives of their loved ones.” Nevada Democrat Harry Reid was the only member of the Senate to support Obama's veto.
In a letter set to both Reid and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Tuesday, the president stressed he was "fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11," but opposed the new law on grounds that it could put American military and officials at risk overseas. The Washington Post notes that Obama's letter warned JASTA “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of of our response to such attacks.” In an editorial Wednesday, the New York Times announced its support of Obama's veto:
While the aim — to give the families their day in court — is compassionate, the bill complicates the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. Moreover, legal experts like Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law and Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School doubt that the legislation would actually achieve its goal.
Advocates say the measure is narrowly drawn, but administration officials argue that it would apply much more broadly and result in retaliatory actions by other nations. The European Union has warned that if the bill becomes law, other countries could adopt similar legislation defining their own exemptions to sovereign immunity. Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.
The newly-passed bill supersedes a 1976 law that granted other countries immunity from American lawsuits, making it possible for nations to be taken to court over their potential involvement in deadly terrorist acts committed within the U.S. It also stands as a sign of Washington's growing anxiety over its ties to Saudi Arabia, which has stood as one of America's Middle Eastern allies for decades and benefitted from $60 billion in arms sales during the Obama administration.
“This is not a time when U.S.-Saudi relations have much popular support on either side,” F. Gregory Gause, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service told the Washington Post. However, Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, who co-authored the bill along with Schumer, rejected the notion that Congress seeks to pull away from the House of Saud.
"When our interests diverge and it’s a question of protecting American rights and American values, I think we should do that,” Cornyn said Wednesday. “This is not about severing our relationship with any ally. This is simply a matter of justice.”