In a unique political blow to President Barack Obama, US Congress has voted to reject his veto of a bill that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabian officials.
This was the first successful override of Obama’s presidency, less than four months before he leaves office.
Despite warnings from Obama and top Pentagon officials that the move could put American troops and interests at risk, the Senate voted 97-1 and the House of Representatives 348-77, meaning the bill becomes law. The bill is called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act or JASTA.
Quickly, the White House lashed out at the Senate on September 28 for overriding President Obama’s veto of legislation.
“I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done, possibly, since 1983,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today.”
Obama too expressed disappointment. He told CNN that the lawmakers had made “a mistake”.
“The concern that I’ve had has nothing to do with Saudi Arabia per se or my sympathy for 9/11 families, it has to do with me not wanting a situation in which we’re suddenly exposed to liabilities for all the work that we’re doing all around the world, and suddenly finding ourselves subject to the private lawsuits in courts where we don’t even know exactly whether they’re on the up and up, in some cases,” he said.
Obama argued in his veto that the bill would undermine US-Saudi relations and warned of tit-for-tat lawsuits against US service members in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take,” he said.
The president argued the bill could expose US companies, troops and officials to potential lawsuits abroad.
As per the bill, the legislation will permit courts to waive a claim of foreign sovereign immunity when an act of terrorism occurs inside US borders.
CIA Director John Brennan said the vote carried “grave implications” for national security, adding: “The downside is potentially huge.”
Up until JASTA, Obama has issued 12 vetoes during the two terms of his presidency, but until now none have been overridden.
Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid was the lone ‘no’ vote against the bill.
Survivors of the September 11 terrorist attacks and families of the victims have longed pushed for the ability to sue Saudi Arabia for damages due to the country’s alleged sponsorship of terrorism prior to the 2001 hijacked airplane strikes on New York City’s World Trade Center.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, but the oil-rich kingdom – a key US ally – has denied any role in the attacks, which left nearly 3,000 people dead. Saudi Arabia has objected strongly to the legislation.