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How The 9/11 Saudi Bill Got Passed

November 17, 2016

“The single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983.” That is how Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, chose to describe the decision by Congress to override a veto from President Obama for the first time in eight years. Those words left nothing to imagination in regards to how the White House felt about what had just happened. The way they saw it, the passage of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act was huge mistake.

What was the Bill?

Known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, the bill in question challenged a previously standing law that maintained United States citizens cannot sue foreign governments. JASTA has changed that law, allowing the families of the victims of 9/11 sue the Saudi government for its involvement in the 9/11 attacks.[1] Politically, voting against the bill wouldn’t have been wise. Voting on the bill took place in the midst of an election season, which made many lawmakers scared of potential political backlash that could arise from a vote against JAFTA.[2] Even though the White House vowed to veto the bill, it progressed through the House and the Senate with ease, earning large majorities in both.

Why was it Vetoed?

Accompanying Obama’s veto, a three page response laid out the specific reasons for his veto decision. The full statement can be read in full here. In it, Obama explains the three reasons why he believes the bill should not become law. Before doing so, however, he reassured the families of the victims of 9/11 that he and his administration have been and remain fully committed to the pursuit of justice, highlighting his administration’s aggressive pursuit of al Qa’ida.

After this, Obama explained the first main issue with JAFTA. He said that the bill would, “reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism.” Before JAFTA, if a foreign country was involved in an act of terror, the federal government could rigorously investigate the suspected nation. Afterwards, it would be determined whether or not the U.S. should deem that country a state sponsor of terrorism. With the passage of JAFTA, however, that system is no longer in place. Since JAFTA allows individuals to sue sovereign nations, multiple courts can handle the same suit and differ on whether a nation receives this title. This lack of uniformity, Obama argues, is incredibly harmful and weakens the federal government’s ability to resolve situations where a foreign nation is suspected of sponsoring terror.

The second major issue with the bill is that it guts foreign sovereignty. While the bill allows private U.S. citizens to sue foreign governments, the same opportunity is opened for people all over the world to sue the United States. This puts the United States’ armed forces, as well as other government workers overseas, at risk of being tried in another nation’s courts. In Obama’s view, JAFTA puts the safety of these people at risk and hinders their ability to do their job, knowing they might no longer be protected.

Obama also said JAFTA should not be passed on the basis that it complicates our relationships with some of our closest partners and allies. JAFTA allows United States citizens to sue a country for reasons that are clearly unwarranted. For example, a suit could be filed against a country simply because their country was the location where a terrorist had flown out of to reach country where the attack took place. While none of these suits would make it all that far in court, Obama contends that they have the potential to strain the United States’ relationships. Multiple countries have already reached out to the White House about this very issue. Allowing our close allies and partners to deal with lawsuits filed by private citizens could damage our ability to cooperate with these countries on essential counterterrorism efforts.[3]

Sen. John Coryn (R-TX) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on the right, the co-authors of JAFTA (Source: Drew Angerer / Getty Images). 

Congressional Response

Even with a thorough response for the veto given by White House, as well a push from Saudi lobbyists who enlisted the help of General Electric, Boeing, and Chevron to push against the bill, Congress overrode the veto with a vote of 47 to 1 in the Senate and 348 to 77 in the House. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, co-author of the bill said, “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.” This view was not shared by everyone, however. Within 24 hours of the override, some senators and congressmen and women were already walking back their votes.[4] Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said “Everybody was aware of who the potential beneficiaries were but nobody had really focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships, and I think it was just a ball dropped”.

Regardless of the backpedaling, the families of 9/11 victims received what they asked for. They can legally sue the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in court. Saudi Arabia is still pushing to get Congress to revisit and hopefully destroy the bill. They have recently hired high profile lobbyists to continue putting pressure on congress.[5] For now, it looks like nothing is going to be done. Now that the lame duck period has begun, Congress may revisit and revise JAFTA. In general, there seems to be a consensus among most of Congress in both parties that this law requires a second look. The only question now is whether the potential consequences voiced by the White House may turn into realities before Congress is able to reverse the “most embarrassing” decision.

References

  [1] http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/obama-veto-911-saudi-arabia/501491/

 

  [2] http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-09-30/congress-s-retreat-on-9-11-saudi-bill-shows-fear-of-backlash

 

  [3] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/23/veto-message-president-s2040

 

  [4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/09/27/senate-poised-to-vote-to-override-obamas-veto-of-911-bill/

 

  [5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2016/11/03/saudi-government-inks-more-lobbyists-as-congress-could-revisit-911-bill-in-lame-duck/

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