Congress over­rides pres­i­dent’s veto of Sept. 11 leg­is­la­tion

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Richard Lard­ner

WASH­ING­TON >> Congress voted over­whelm­ingly Wed­nes­day to al­low fam­i­lies of Sept. 11 vic­tims to sue Saudi Ara­bia for its al­leged back­ing of the at­tack­ers, hand­ing Barack Obama the first veto over­ride of his pres­i­dency.

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 U.S. in­ter­ests, troops, and in­tel­li­gence per­son­nel at risk.

The Se­nate vote was 97-1. The House vote a few hours later was 348-77.

Law­mak­ers said their pri­or­ity was the 9/11 vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, not Saudi Ara­bia.

“The White House and the ex­ec­u­tive branch (are) far more in­ter­ested in diplo­matic con­sid­er­a­tions,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a spon­sor of the bill. “We’re more in­ter­ested in the fam­i­lies and in jus­tice.”

Speak­ing at a fo­rum in Wash­ing­ton, CIA Direc­tor John Bren­nan said he was con­cerned about how Saudi Ara­bia, a key U.S. ally in the Mid­dle East, would in­ter­pret the bill. He said the Saudis pro­vide sig­nif­i­cant amounts of in­for­ma­tion to the U.S. to help foil ex­trem­ist plots.

“It would an ab­so­lute shame if this leg­is­la­tion, in any way, in­flu­enced the Saudi will­ing­ness to con­tinue to be among our best coun­tert­er­ror­ism part­ners,” Bren­nan said.

Bren­nan, who said he vis­ited law­mak­ers Wed­nes­day to ar­gue against an over­ride of Obama’s veto, noted that there is a tremen­dous amount of Saudi in­vest­ment in the United States. “Do they want to leave them here so they could po­ten­tially be at­tached by some type of court rul­ing that is go­ing to award the lit­i­gants?” he asked.

Af­ter sen­a­tors acted, White House spokesman Josh Earnest called the vote the “sin­gle most em­bar­rass­ing thing” the Se­nate has done in decades and “an ab­di­ca­tion” of its re­spon­si­bil­ity. He ac­cused mem­bers of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee of not un­der­stand­ing the leg­is­la­tion and its im­pact on the mil­i­tary.

Five weeks be­fore state and na­tional elec­tions, law­mak­ers re­fused to op­pose a mea­sure strongly sup­ported by 9/11 fam­i­lies who say they are still seek­ing jus­tice 15 years af­ter at­tack­ers killed nearly 3,000 peo­ple. Saudi Ara­bia, an im­por­tant U.S. ally in the Mid­dle East, is staunchly op­posed to the mea­sure.

De­spite re­vers­ing Obama’s de­ci­sion, a group of sen­a­tors ac­knowl­edged 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 U.S. may have had a role.

In a let­ter sent Tues­day to Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Harry Reid, Obama said the bill would erode sov­er­eign im­mu­nity prin­ci­ples that pre­vent for­eign lit­i­gants “from sec­ond-guess­ing our coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions and other ac­tions that we take ev­ery day.”

But pro­po­nents of the bill dis­missed Obama’s con­cerns as un­per­sua­sive. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Se­nate’s No. 2 Repub­li­can, and other sup­port­ers said the bill is nar­rowly tai­lored and ap­plies only to acts of ter­ror­ism that oc­cur on U.S. soil.

“This bill is about re­spect­ing the voices and rights of Amer­i­can vic­tims,” Cornyn said.

Fam­i­lies of the vic­tims and their at­tor­neys dis­missed con­cerns over the leg­is­la­tion as fear­mon­ger­ing.

Sen. Ben Cardin of Mary­land, one of the Democrats who broke with Obama and voted to over­ride, said, “The risks of shield­ing the per­pe­tra­tors of ter­ror­ism from jus­tice are greater than the risks this leg­is­la­tion may pose to Amer­ica’s pres­ence around the world.”

The leg­is­la­tion gives vic­tims’ fam­i­lies the right to sue in U.S. court for any role that el­e­ments of the Saudi gov­ern­ment may have played in the 2001 at­tacks. Fif­teen of the 19 Sept. 11 hi­jack­ers were Saudis. Courts would be per­mit­ted to waive a claim of for­eign sov­er­eign im­mu­nity when an act of ter­ror­ism oc­curred in­side U.S. bor­ders, ac­cord­ing to the terms of the bill.

A group of na­tional-se­cu­rity minded leg­is­la­tors pledged to dis­cuss how to re­pair prob­lem ar­eas dur­ing the up­com­ing lame-duck ses­sion of Congress. But the fact that leg­is­la­tion could pass both cham­bers of Congress with­out closer scru­tiny left at least a few sen­a­tors chid­ing them­selves for not ex­am­in­ing its ram­i­fi­ca­tions more closely.

The Jus­tice Against Spon­sors of Ter­ror­ism Act, or JASTA, moved to the floor of the Se­nate in May and was passed by voice vote. The bill cleared the House ear­lier this month, also by voice vote.

“We didn’t pay much at­ten­tion to this,” said Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein of Cal­i­for­nia, the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee. “And boy is that ever a les­son learned.”

Obama ve­toed the mea­sure last week, telling law­mak­ers the bill would make the U.S. vul­ner­a­ble to re­tal­ia­tory lit­i­ga­tion.

C-SPAN2 VIA AP

This frame grab from video pro­vided by C-SPAN2, shows the floor of the Se­nate on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton, Wed­nes­day, as the Se­nate acted de­ci­sively to over­ride Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s veto of Sept. 11 leg­is­la­tion, set­ting the stage for the con­tentious bill to be­come law de­spite flaws that Obama and top Pen­tagon of­fi­cials warn could put U.S. troops and in­ter­ests at risk.

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