Every once in awhile, Congress will surprise you, like it did Wednesday when members of both the House and Senate struck down President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would permit family members of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.
The overwhelming bi-partisan support for still-grieving families served as a humiliating rebuke for both Obama and Saudi Arabia, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, which has recently come under increased scrutiny despite an entrenched alliance that deepened after 9/11.
In an appearance at a CNN town hall event Wednesday evening, President Obama said the vote was a “mistake” and would set a “dangerous precedent” for people abroad to bring suits against the United States.
The bill, officially titled the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA),” opens the door for victims’ families of the Sept. 11 attacks to effectively take Saudi Arabia to court and examine whether officials within the government provided financial or logistical support to the 9/11 hijackers.
“It’s very gratifying,” Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the sponsor of the House version of the bill, told the Press. “I really feel strongly for the 9/11 families; they fought hard on this.”
The Senate voted overwhelmingly—97-1—to override the president’s veto on Wednesday. The House vote was 348-77. A two-thirds majority in Congress is required to overturn a presidential veto.
The bipartisan vote was “one of the few times since 9/11 you saw real congressional unity today,” King added.
The emotional appeal from 9/11 families underscored how sensitive the vote was—and Obama acknowledged as much during the CNN town hall.
“It’s an example of why sometimes you have to do what’s hard, and frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard,” Obama said. “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.”
CIA Director John Brennan also reacted with disappointment, saying the law “will have grave implications for the national security.”
“The most damaging consequence would be for those US Government officials who dutifully work overseas on behalf of our country,” Brennan said in a statement. “The principle of sovereign immunity protects US officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity. If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation’s officials in danger.”
Obama has argued that the measure would make the US vulnerable to similar lawsuits brought by victims of American-led operations.
America’s Long War
The White House’s opposition to the measure comes as Obama has expanded the parameters in which the US fights alleged militants around the world.
As commander-in-chief, Obama has bombed at least seven predominantly Muslim countries using ubiquitous predator drone strikes and manned aircraft, causing hundreds of civilian deaths. He’s also deployed US Special Forces into countries, such as Libya, that the United States is not in hostilities with. In almost all instances, the administration cites the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force resolution, enacted three days after 9/11, to justify its actions.
Ironically, the United States has helped weaponize the Saudi-led coalition that has decimated and destabilized Yemen, killing upwards of 10,000 people—almost half of whom were civilians, according to human rights groups, as part of its offensive against Houthi rebels. Among the civilian causalities were patients at a Yemeni hospital supported by Doctors Without Borders and attendees at a couple of wedding parties.
That the United States supports the Saudi government is of no surprise. Saudi Arabia is a long-time ally in the Middle East, serving as a counterweight to Iran, the kingdom’s chief rival in the region.
But Rep. King says suggestions that Saudi Arabia will suddenly rethink its close relationship with the United States, or even sneer at Congress’ rebuke, are off-base.
“I support America’s involvement with Saudi Arabia against terrorism,” the congressman said in a phone interview. “They have improved in many ways, and we are involved in a number of activities with them right now, which I support.”
“The reason I’m not strongly concerned about a Saudi response—even though you have to take it into account—is, basically, the Saudis are survivors,” he added. “They don’t act based on hurt feelings. They realize it’s in their interest to maintain a close relationship with the US, at this time. It could always change in the future.”
Scrutiny On Saudis
This is the second time in three months Washington has risked alienating the Saudis.
In July, Congress released more than two dozen long-classified pages from the so-called “9/11 Commission Report”—a voluminous analysis by the bipartisan National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, which investigated the circumstances leading up to, including and following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Known as the “28 Pages,” the recently released portion pertained to Saudi Arabia’s alleged involvement in the tragedy, since 15 of the 19 hijackers hailed from the kingdom.
The report did not explicitly link the Saudi Arabian royal family to the attacks, but was ambiguous enough to welcome speculation.
“While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government,” the commission wrote in the report.
“There is information, primarily from FBI sources, that at least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers,” it continued. “The joint inquiry’s review confirmed that the Intelligence Community also has information, much of which has yet to be independently verified, indicating that individuals associated with the Saudi Government in the United States may have other ties to al [Qaeda] and other terrorist groups.”
Saudi Arabia has maintained that its rulers played no role in the 9/11 attacks.
Now that JASTA has passed Congress’ muster—and survived a presidential veto—American families have the opportunity to take the Saudi government to court.
The legislation notes that “persons, entities, or countries that knowingly or recklessly contribute material support or resources, directly or indirectly, to persons or organizations that pose a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism…should reasonably anticipate being brought to court in the United States to answer for such activities.”
Supporters of the veto override were ecstatic.
“We are overwhelmingly grateful that Congress did not let us down. The victims of 9/11 have fought for 15 long years to make sure that those responsible for the senseless murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children, and injuries to thousands others, are held accountable,” Terry Strada, national chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, said in a statement. “JASTA becoming law is a tremendous victory toward that effort. We rejoice in this triumph and look forward to our day in court and a time when we may finally get more answers regarding who was truly behind the attacks.”