Congress overrides Obama veto of 9/11 suits
Democrats joined Republicans on Wednesday to hand US President Barack Obama his first veto override, voting overwhelmingly to allow families of victims of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in US courts for the Middle Eastern kingdom’s alleged backing of the attackers.
Both the House and Senate voted decisively to reverse Obama’s decision to scuttle the legislation. Democrats in both chambers abandoned the president in large numbers despite warnings from Obama and top national security officials that flaws in the bill could put US interests, troops and intelligence personnel at risk.
“If we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal loss,” Obama said during a town hall meeting-style interview on CNN, referring to potential lawsuits.
“It’s a dangerous precedent,” he said.
Lawmakers said their priority wasn’t Saudi Arabia, but the 9/11 victims and their families who continue to demand justice 15 years after attackers killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, the Washington area and Pennsylvania. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.
“Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, a chief sponsor of the bill.
Speaking at a forum in Washington, CIA Director John Brennan said he was concerned about how Saudi Arabia, a key US ally in the Middle East, would interpret the bill. He said that the Saudis provide significant amounts of information to the US to help foil extremist plots.
Obama said that a few lawmakers who backed the bill weren’t aware of its potential impact. He didn’t name them. “And, frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard,” he said. “It was, you know, basically a political vote.”
But Republicans and Democrats said the White House had been slow to respond to the bill and miscalculated lawmakers’ intent to act on the legislation along with the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks. When Obama and senior national security officials such as Defense Secretary Ash Carter finally weighed in, it was too late.
The Senate passed the bill by voice vote in May. The Obama administration then made the mistake of thinking the bill would stall in the Republicancontrolled House.
On Sept 9, two days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the House passed the bill by voice vote with little debate.
A bipartisan group of 28 senators led by Bob Corker, of Tennessee, suggested that defects in the bill could open a legal Pandora’s box, triggering lawsuits from people in other countries seeking redress for injuries or deaths caused by military actions in which the US may have had a role.