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President Barack Obama faces a showdown with Congress after vetoing a bill to allow US citizens to sue Saudi officials for alleged links to the September 11 attacks, a decision that puts him at odds with Democratic allies as well as Hillary Clinton.
Making good on his pledge to use his veto power, Obama struck down a bill on Friday he said would set a dangerous precedent in international law. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) cruised through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, with its final adoption coming just two days before the nation marked the 15th anniversary of the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
On Saturday, lawmakers threatened to reverse the presidential veto by securing a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate, which would be an unprecedented blow to Obama. He has vetoed nine bills during his eight years in office, but has never been overridden.
Of the men who carried out the September 11 attacks, 15 of the 19 were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia has vehemently denied backing the airplane hijackers, but families of the victims have spent years pleading for the right to sue the oil-rich kingdom in US courts for any role Saudi officials might have played in the attack.
Some families of the victims and lawmakers have criticised Obama for denying them the right to seek justice via the courts, accusing him of bending to diplomatic pressure from Riyadh. JASTA does not mention Saudi Arabia specifically, but it would allow US citizens to sue a foreign government if that state supported attacks that killed Americans inside US borders.
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, a top Democrat and traditional Obama ally, on Friday blasted the president for vetoing the bill and predicted fellow lawmakers would quickly override it in a rare show of bi-partisan unity. “The families of the victims of 9/11 deserve their day in court, and justice for those families shouldn’t be thrown overboard because of diplomatic concerns,” Schumer fumed.
“I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,” Obama countered in a letter to the Senate this week, repeating his argument that JASTA would ultimately undermine US interests and national security.
‘Foreign sovereign immunity’
For weeks the Obama administration has underscored the danger of creating an exception in international law that could backfire against the United States, while downplaying the argument that he is concerned about tarnishing the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
It has warned that in retaliation for cases brought forth in the United States, US military personnel, US diplomats and even US companies could be hauled into countries around the world in the future. The White House said the bill would weaken “sovereign immunity”, a pillar of international law, that perhaps no other country benefits more from across the world than the United States.
Speaking to the press on Friday, hours after Obama vetoed the bill, White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed out that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had accused the US of supporting terrorist activities in his country just days earlier.
“If there were these kinds of exceptions… it could put the United States at grave legal risk. It’s not exactly uncommon for other countries to irresponsibly and falsely accuse the United States of terrorism,” Earnest said.
The press secretary admitted Riyadh had objected to the bill, but said it was far from the only country to raise concern.
Indeed, the European Union on September 21 asked Obama to block JASTA in a strongly worded letter. “State immunity is a central pillar of the international legal order. Any derogation from the principle of immunity bears the inherent danger of causing reciprocal action by other states, and erosion of the principle as such,” the EU delegation to the United States wrote.
Obama’s opposition to JASTA not only threatens to tarnish his legacy as a defender of American interests among lawmakers, survivors of September 11 and ordinary US citizens, but has also put him in direct conflict with his former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s campaign on Friday repeated previous statements that she would sign the bill if she were president. The White House hopeful backs “the ability of 9/11 families and other victims of terror to hold accountable those responsible,” her spokesman, Jesse Lehrich, told reporters.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has again jumped at the opportunity to paint Obama as weak on terrorism. He said Obama’s veto was “shameful and will go down as one of the low points of his presidency.”
White House spokesman Earnest did acknowledge that Obama’s position was an unpopular one, and that the president lacked emotional arguments to convince lawmakers not to reverse his veto. But he said the commander in chief was focused on the long-term impact on national security.
“That’s what’s driving the President’s decision to veto this bill — not because it’s politically convenient, it’s not. It’s political inconvenient,” the spokesman said.
The Obama administration may nevertheless avoid a veto override on his watch, either by building a case against JASTA in Congress or by delaying a vote until his term in office ends.
The president delayed vetoing the bill until the last possible moment, while his staff last week asked members of Congress to back off an override. He even has some support from across the political aisle. In a letter Friday to fellow Republicans, Congressman Mac Thornberry of Texas, who heads the House Armed Services Committee, urged Republicans to study the bill’s consequences. He said he opposes the legislation.
And while lawmakers have threatened to call a vote as early as next week,
Congressional rules could delay the override until after the November 8 election, when Obama could campaign against the bill – but from outside the White House.