Congress Overrides Obama's Veto On Sept. 11 Lawsuit Bill

Sep 28, 2016
Originally published on September 30, 2016 8:18 am

Updated at 3:22 p.m. ET with House vote

Congress approved the first successful override of a presidential veto from President Obama on Wednesday when the House joined the Senate in voting against Obama's objection to a bill that would allow family members to sue Saudi Arabia over the Sept. 11 attacks.

The override cleared the Senate earlier Wednesday, in a 97-1 vote in favor of the override, well above the two-thirds majority needed to overcome the president's objection. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid cast the lone "no" vote. Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did not vote.

The House vote was 348-77.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would, among other things, give families of Sept. 11 victims the right to sue Saudi Arabia over claims it aided or financed the terrorist attacks.

The House initially passed the measure on a voice vote earlier this month, two days before the 15th anniversary of the deadly terrorist attacks.

The Saudi government denies any role in those attacks, and the 9/11 Commission found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials were involved. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, though, and there have long been suspicions that some of the hijackers received support during their time in the U.S. from individuals with possible connections to the Saudi Kingdom.

Supporters of the veto override say those suspicions should be explored in a U.S. court of law.

The Obama administration says it's sympathetic to victims' families, but concerned that allowing such lawsuits would open the door to legal challenges against American officials in other countries.

"The president understands the passion that's on both sides of this issue," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Tuesday. "It's the president's responsibility to consider the broader impact that this bill, as it's currently written, would have on our national security, and our standing around the world, and on our diplomats and our service members who represent the United States around the world."

Those concerns were underscored by CIA Director John Brennan shortly before the Senate vote.

"The principle of sovereign immunity protects U.S. officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity," Brennan said in a statement. "If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries, we place our own nation's officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States—and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA."

Under the principle of "sovereign immunity," a country should remain immune from lawsuits in the courts of another country. Although there are some very limited exceptions to that principle already, critics complain the measure allowing lawsuits against the Saudi government creates a dangerously wide exception.

Families of Sept. 11 victims have demanded a right to seek monetary compensation from Saudi Arabia since the attacks, and versions of this bill have been floating around the Capitol since as far back as 2009, but the legislation never reached the floor until this year.

It sailed through both chambers without any opposition, but did so without a formal tally of votes. Passage of JASTA was done by so-called "unanimous consent" in the Senate, and by voice vote in the House.

What does this bill do?

JASTA would allow a lawsuit against any country by any U.S. citizen who claims the country financed or otherwise aided and abetted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Liability would attach only if the plaintiff could show the country acted with knowledge in providing this support.

Congress already has allowed Americans to sue countries that have been designated as "state sponsors of terrorism," but currently, that list includes only three countries — Iran, Syria and Sudan. The White House says that designation is assigned only after very careful review by national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials, and that such designations should not be left to private litigants and judges.

The concerns voiced by the White House, some lawmakers

There's been talk about the principle of "sovereign immunity" and how this bill might erode that principle.

Under the principle of "sovereign immunity," a country should remain immune from lawsuits in the courts of another country. It's a long-held principle of international law. And although there are some very limited exceptions to that principle, some lawmakers and the White House believe JASTA creates a dangerously wide exception.

The fear is that other countries might reciprocate and enact laws that would drag U.S. government officials or members of our military into lawsuits in foreign courts under the theory that those people aided and abetted some injury abroad.

And to Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, that would expose the U.S. to tremendous liability.

"Let's face it. We're the greatest nation on earth. We have more involvements around the world than any country," said Corker. "We've got assets deployed all around the world more than any country. So if sovereign immunity recedes, we're the nation that is most exposed."

In his veto message, President Obama said there could be lawsuits against the United States for "actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training." However without merit these claims may be, the White House argues, they would still suck up resources and increase the country's legal exposure.

Allowing Sept. 11 families a day in court

Supporters of the bill say it's a little alarmist to think this bill is going to corrode the principle of sovereign immunity and invite a flood of retaliatory litigation against the U.S. They point out sovereign immunity is not absolute — there are already, after all, exceptions to it.

And most importantly, they argue, all JASTA ultimately does is give Sept. 11 victims a chance to be heard in court.

"The issue is fundamentally about, is whether someone would have the opportunity to raise their concerns in the judicial system. It's not a judgment about how a case would come out," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Intelligence Committee. "It seems to me that it is appropriate — particularly in light of the families — that they should have a chance to raise their concerns in court. "

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

President Obama almost got through eight years in office without having any of his vetoes overridden by a hostile Congress. But today, the Senate will vote to do just that. The bill in question is popular with both Republicans and Democrats. It would allow families of the victims of the September 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for allegedly supporting those attackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. On Monday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest explained the president's decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: We're not just concerned about the impact that this bill would have on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. We're deeply concerned about the impact that this bill would have on the U.S. relationship with countries all around the world. And that's why the president vetoed it at the end of last week.

MONTAGNE: The House is likely to take up the override veto by the end of the week. And for more, we turned to NPR's congressional correspondent, Ailsa Chang. Good morning.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Before we get into this probable first-ever override of a veto, take us back for a moment for a look at this bill.

CHANG: Yeah, so this is a bill that would give 9/11 families the right to pursue legal claims against any country they feel played some role in any terrorism attack on U.S. soil. In this case, it would be Saudi Arabia. These families have been looking to demand monetary compensation for years. Many of them believe Saudi Arabia was somehow involved in the attacks. Saudi Arabia has denied this adamantly. And the bill has been circulating the Capitol for a really long time. It just never got to the floor and passed until this year.

MONTAGNE: But can't these families do that already? I mean, civil lawsuits have been allowed against state sponsors of terrorism. Have they not?

CHANG: That's absolutely correct. Congress has allowed Americans to sue countries that had been designated as state sponsors of terrorism. But that list is limited to only three countries right now - Iran, Syria and Sudan.

MONTAGNE: And those are the key words - state sponsors of terrorism.

CHANG: Right. And you notice that Saudi Arabia is not on that list. The White House says those designations are made only after very careful review by national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials. They're not decisions that should be left to private litigants and judges in courtrooms. And what this 9/11 bill does is it allows lawsuits against any country that any U.S. citizen believes helped or financed a terrorism attack on U.S. soil.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, Saudi Arabia is an ally - a longtime ally - of the United States. But, Ailsa, the president vetoed this on a bigger principle that even some senators are now worried about.

CHANG: That's right. There are a lot of concerns about a principle known as sovereign immunity. It's this idea that a country should remain immune from lawsuits in the courts of another country. It's a long-held principle under international law. And although there are some very limited exceptions to that principle, some lawmakers and the White House believe this 9/11 bill carves out too expansive of an exception.

And they fear that other countries might reciprocate and drag U.S. government officials or members of our own military into lawsuits in foreign courts under this theory that those people helped cause some injury abroad. In fact, Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee told me that was his biggest concern right now about the bill.

BOB CORKER: Let's face it, we're the greatest nation on Earth. We have more involvements around the world than any country. We've got assets deployed all around the world, more than any country. So if sovereign immunity issues recede, we're the nation that is most exposed.

CHANG: So he's worried that the U.S. would be exposed to a flood of litigation. And what would the discovery process look like in such litigation? Might it force the U.S. to hand over sensitive national security information? Those are all concerns that are bubbling around the Capitol right now, just as this override vote is upon Congress.

MONTAGNE: And what do supporters of this bill say to those concerns?

CHANG: Well, essentially there's a perception that it's a little alarmist to think this bill is going to erode the principle of sovereign immunity, that there will be a flood of litigation. Many lawmakers think the White House's concerns are a bit overblown, that the concept of sovereign immunity is not absolute anyway.

There are already exceptions to it. And they feel that the White House's concerns about interfering with our global relationships are a bit overblown. This bill is ultimately about giving 9/11 victims a chance to be heard in court to the supporters of the bill. Here's Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. He's a senior member of the Intelligence Committee.

RON WYDEN: The issue it's fundamentally about is whether someone would have the opportunity to raise their concerns in the judicial system. It's not a judgment about how a case would come out. But it seems to me that it is appropriate - particularly in light of the families - that they should have a chance to raise their concerns in court.

MONTAGNE: OK, Ailsa, so this idea of the families being able to at least experience some sense of justice and raise their concerns, I imagine made it easier for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to embrace the bill originally. But it takes two-thirds of each chamber to override a presidential veto, and it sounds like there are some lawmakers who are beginning to think about backing off.

CHANG: Well, concerns do seem a little late in the game now. But remember, when this bill was working its way through Congress, it had an enormous amount of goodwill because it was considered a bill that helped 9/11 families. Everyone is onboard with that idea. But then this bill sailed through both chambers through voice votes - or a voice vote in the House, what's called unanimous consent in the Senate, meaning members didn't have to go on the record as a yes or no vote on the bill.

But now this override vote is going to be the first time members will have to attach their names to a yes or no vote on this bill. And that's why many of them are just beginning to study the bill and are just beginning to have concerns about it.

MONTAGNE: Still though, this override is expected to be successful.

CHANG: That's right. Leaders in both chambers are confident about that.

MONTAGNE: NPR's congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang, thanks very much.

CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.