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Obama Veto Bars 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia

  • Mary Alice Salinas

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, smoke rising from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers, in New York City.

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2001 file photo, smoke rising from the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center after hijacked planes crashed into the towers, in New York City.

U.S. President Barack Obama has vetoed legislation that would have allowed the families of 9/11 terror attack victims to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to the hijackers involved in those crimes 15 years ago.

However, Obama's veto Friday may delay the bill only temporarily. Congress could override the president's action, and many Washington observers feel that such a rebuff to Obama is likely.

An override in this case would mark the first time in Obama's two terms that one of his vetoes was rejected.

In a letter to the Senate, the president said that the bill, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, would "neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks."

Furthermore, he argued, the measure would be "detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly."

The legislation would have allowed families to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged ties to the 2001 terror attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, by authorizing U.S. courts to waive any claim of foreign sovereign immunity in cases involving terrorism on U.S. soil.

The White House has argued the bill would undermine the longstanding practice of sovereign immunity and expose U.S. diplomats, service members and, in some cases, businesses to "spurious" lawsuits around the world.

Pressure to let veto stand

Lawmakers can override the president's veto with a two-thirds vote by each chamber of Congress. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are led by the opposition Republican Party, and its leaders have indicated they are confident they have enough votes to overturn Obama's veto.

No schedule for an override vote has yet been set.

Even before the president announced his veto, White House officials held a series of urgent meetings on Capitol Hill, trying to persuade senators and members of Congress to allow the president's decision to stand.

The number of lawmakers who plan to vote against the veto and reinstate Saudi Arabia's exposure to legal action is difficult to tally, according to the White House deputy press secretary, Josh Earnest, because of "the frequency with which we hear private concerns expressed that don't match the public votes that are cast [later]."

Confidence in override

Congress passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act by an overwhelming margin earlier this year after intense lobbying by 9/11 victims' families and groups who support them.

Earnest said administration officials have tried "to make a forceful case to members of Congress that overriding the president's veto means that this country will start pursuing a less forceful approach in dealing with state sponsors of terrorism."

Republican leaders in Congress expect the override to pass.

"There will be a roll call vote on the veto override," Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday. "Our assumption is that the veto will be overridden."

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday he believes there are enough votes to override the bill, though he also expressed reservations about the legislation.

"I worry about legal matters," Ryan said. "I worry about trial lawyers trying to get rich off of this. And I do worry about the precedents. At the same time, these victims do need to have their day in court."

Earnest argued the Obama administration is concerned about the impact on U.S. relations with countries around the world, not just with Saudi Arabia.

Fifteen of the 19 airline hijackers who commandeered four passenger jets in the terror attacks were citizens of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has denied any involvement in the attacks.

Obama expressed "deep sympathy" for the families of 9/11 victims and a "deep appreciation" for their desire to pursue justice. He said his administration remains "strongly committed" to helping them find justice and preventing further terrorist attacks against America.

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