US Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill
Washington - The US Congress overrode by a wide bipartisan margin US President Barack Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), a bill that allows US citizens to sue the Saudi government for damages related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Obama vetoed the bill, saying it would “invite consequential decisions to be made based upon incomplete information and risk having different courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist activities directed against the United States”.
He concluded that JASTA was “neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond to indications that a foreign government might have been behind a terrorist attack”.
Obama and other administration officials also argued that JASTA could encourage foreign citizens to sue the US government for damages.
The US constitution gives Congress the power to override a president’s veto if each house of Congress votes by a two-thirds majority to do so. In the case of JASTA, the Senate override vote was 97-1 and the House of Representatives vote was 348-77.
JASTA was conceived by members of Congress who have argued that Saudi government officials aided and abetted the Saudi nationals who hijacked aeroplanes on September 11th, 2001, and flew them into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in a Washington suburb. Another plane, likely headed to another target in or near Washington, crashed in Pennsylvania killing all on board.
On July 15th, 28 formerly classified pages that were part of a 2002 congressional inquiry into the 9/11 attacks were made public. There had been claims the documents would provide evidence that the Saudi government was implicated in the attacks. While the pages revealed minimal contact between a low-level Saudi consular official and two of the 15 Saudi hijackers, there was no indication that either the consul or the Saudi government knew of the intended attacks or helped to orchestrate them.
The advocates of JASTA were not convinced, however, by the lack of evidence in the 28 released pages and made a point of pushing the legislation through during an election year, when members of Congress are more vulnerable to criticism from political opponents.
A congressional staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “Most people up here [in Congress] think this is a really stupid bill but it’s all about politics.”
Obama, speaking after the veto override, said “I wish Congress had done what’s hard. I didn’t expect it, because 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. But it would have been the right thing to do.”
The Washington Post, in a lead editorial, harshly condemned JASTA and encouraged Congress not to override Obama’s veto. David Ottaway, a former journalist and long-time analyst of the Middle East who is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said: “This hardly seems the moment for America to be acting to discredit the most important Arab and Muslim country enlisted in the US-led coalition of 67 nations fighting to put an end to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).”
The passage of JASTA means that individual Americans — more likely joined together in a class action lawsuit — will be able to sue the Saudi government in US courts for damages related to the 9/11 attacks.
If a lawsuit appears to be moving forward, the Saudis could respond by selling tens of billions of dollars in liquid assets held in the United States to protect them from possible court seizure. According to the US Treasury Department, the Saudis hold more than $95 billion in US Treasury securities. A sudden and large withdrawal of assets could have a negative effect on US markets.
The Saudis could also express their displeasure by reducing cooperation with the United States on a host of issues, including terrorism intelligence.
Most importantly, the passage of JASTA sends another signal to Saudi Arabia that the United States is no longer as reliable a partner as it once was perceived to be. Although Obama vetoed the bill and made strong arguments against it, his two terms in office have seen a deterioration in US-Saudi relations and JASTA continues that process.
Some Obama administration officials suggested that JASTA could perhaps be modified after the elections. This would require passage of a new bill, one that Obama (or, after January 20th, the new president) would sign. Congressional advocates of JASTA say this will not happen.