US Congress rejects Obama’s veto, allows Saudi to be sued over 9/11
The US Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected President Barack Obama’s veto of legislation allowing relatives of the victims of the September 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia, paving the way for the first veto override of his eight-year presidency.world Updated: Sep 29, 2016 21:35 IST
US congress has overwhelmingly voted to override a presidential veto, the first time for President Barack Obama, to allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged support to the terrorists who carried out the attacks in 2001.
The senate passed it by a 97-1 vote on Wednesday, with the House of Representatives following up with a 348-77 decision later int he day, sending the bill back to Obama, who has no choice but to sign it into law now, having vetoed it the first time.
“Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,” Charles Schumer, the Democratic senator from New York who co-authored the bill with Senator John Cornyn, Republican from Texas, said in a statement.
The Obama administration had opposed the legislation, arguing it would open up the US to similar legal action in other countries, and noting that Saudi Arabia had long been an important ally in the region and a cornerstone of American policy there.
“If we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal loss,” Obama said during a town hall meeting-style interview on CNN. “It’s a dangerous precedent,” he said.
There was some disquiet even among lawmakers who had supported and voted for the legislation and, according to reports in US media, efforts were already underway to whittle down certain more troubling provisions of the law. One proposal being considered was to narrow the scope of this law to only 9/11.
Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in the 9/11 attacks has long been a subject of speculation because 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens. The recent release of 28 pages of the 9/11 commission report also confirmed, in a way, the suspicions.
“While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support and assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi Government.… [A]t least two of those individuals were alleged by some to be Saudi intelligence officers,” one of those pages said.
Another one said, “a [deleted], dated July 2, 2002, [indicates] ‘incontrovertible evidence that there is support for these terrorists inside the Saudi Government”.
The Saudi government has denied any involvement in the attacks, and threatened to sell of billions of dollars in assets it held in the US fearing losing them in litigation after the passage of the bill allowing families to sue it.
The veto override was also seen as a sign of waning sympathy for Saudi Arabia on the Hill, following last week’s passage of a Senate resolution blocking all arms sale to Saudi over it role in the Yemen conflict.
There was stony silence from Riyadh on Thursday on the congress move, but some Saudis bristled, saying the kingdom could curb business and security ties in response to an ally’s perceived affront.
The Saudi government financed an extensive lobbying campaign against the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act”, or JASTA, in the run-up to the vote, and warned it would undermine the principle of sovereign immunity.
But Saudi officials stopped short of threatening any retaliation if the law was passed. The long-standing alliance between the kingdom and the United States is one of the cornerstones of the Middle East’s politics, security and trade, and in their reactions on Thursday some Saudis said JASTA would jeopardise what they see as an interdependent relationship.
“What would happen if Saudi Arabia froze its cooperation with the United States with regards to counter-terrorism as a response to JASTA?” Salman al-Dosary, editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, wrote on Twitter.
Another Saudi national referred to a widely held belief in the region that the United States was after the kingdom’s oil wealth. The law was “the last chance (for the U.S.) to bleed out the resources of our good nation,” wrote Abdullah Medallah on Twitter. (with inputs from Reuters)