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US Congress overrides Obama veto of 9/11 lawsuit bill

The House and Senate have approved an override of Obama's veto of the 9/11 bill giving families right to sue Saudi Arabia
European Union has warned the rules would be 'in conflict with fundamental principles of international law' (Wikimedia Commons)

Both chambers of the US Congress on Wednesday voted to override President Obama's veto of a bill giving 9/11 families the right to sue Saudi Arabia. Many of those families claim the Saudi government has connections to the terror plot.

In a landmark vote, Senators 97-to-one backed the override, with only outgoing Obama ally Harry Reid voting against. The House also overwhelmingly rejected the veto in a 348-76 vote, well above the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

The rare act of bipartisanship is a severe blow to Obama, who lobbied hard against the bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).

It marks Obama's last months in office and shows the White House to be much weakened.

Obama has issued 12 vetoes during his presidency. Until now none have been revoked, a rare feat given Republicans' long control of Congress.

The White House argued the bill would undermine the principle of sovereign immunity and open up the US itself to lawsuits.

Obama responds

Obama called Wednesday's vote a "dangerous precedent".

White House press secretary Josh Earnest called the Senate vote "the single most embarrassing thing" the legislative body has done in decades.

"I understand why it happened," he said on CNN. "Obviously, all of us still carry the scars and trauma of 9/11."

But he said the decision would harm US national interests by undermining the principle of sovereign immunity, opening up the United States to private lawsuits over its military missions abroad.

"Our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal loss," Obama said.

Some of the lawmakers who voted for the override didn't know what was in the bill, he said, calling the result "basically a political vote".

White House press secretary Josh Earnest earlier called the Senate vote "the single most embarrassing thing" the legislative body has done in decades.

"Ultimately these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today," he told reporters traveling with Obama in Richmond, Virginia. 

Families of 9/11 victims have campaigned for the law - convinced that the Saudi government had a hand in the attacks that killed almost 3,000 people.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, but no link to the government has been proven. The Saudi government denies any links to the plotters.

Declassified documents showed US intelligence had multiple suspicions about links between the Saudi government and the attackers.

"While in the United States, some of the 9/11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected to the Saudi government," a finding read.

Behind the scenes, Riyadh has lobbied furiously for the bill to be scrapped.

A senior Saudi prince reportedly threatened to pull billions of dollars out of US assets if it becomes law, but Saudi officials now distance themselves from that claim.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has already tried to paint Obama and his would-be successor Hillary Clinton as weak on terrorism.

Clinton has preemptively voiced support for congressional efforts "to secure the ability of 9/11 families and other victims of terror to hold accountable those responsible," according to Jesse Lehrich, a campaign spokesman.

In a diplomatic protest note obtained by AFP, the European Union warned the rules would be "in conflict with fundamental principles of international law".

"State immunity is a central pillar of the international legal order," the "demarche" noted, adding that other countries could take "reciprocal action".

In a letter to lawmakers, also seen by AFP, former Secretary of Defence William Cohen, former CIA boss Michael Morell and Stephen Hadley, George W Bush's national security adviser, were among a group of high-profile security figures warning that the legislation would hurt US interests.

"Our national security interests, our capacity to fight terrorism and our leadership role in the world would be put in serious jeopardy," they said.

'Law of the jungle'

"What would stop somebody in Lebanon from passing a law in the parliament saying that the US could be sued for its support for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon." - James Zogby

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based think tank, compared the bill to the Dubai Ports controversy, when Congress introduced a legislation in 2006 delaying the sale of port management businesses in six US locations to a company based in the UAE.

It's an effort to exploit anti-Arab sentiment and fear and hostility around an election time for purely electoral motives,” Zogby said of the 9/11 bill.

He added that like the Dubai Ports controversy, the legislation could affect the Arab Gulf private sector’s economic activity in the United States.

Zogby said he was told by Arab investors after the vote on Wednesday that the bill will have repercussions on their doing business in the United States.

He said the bill opens the way to “the law of the jungle” globally.

“What would stop somebody in Lebanon from passing a law in the parliament saying that the US could be sued for its support for Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon and the loss of life and damage to infrastructure which was caused by that,” Zogby said.

He added that similarly, Iraqis in Saudi Arabia may call for laws that would allow them to file lawsuits against Washington for the damages to Iraqi towns during the US-led invasion.

“There are dangers here,” Zogby continued. “But I don’t think Congress was interested in considering them.”

Asked why Congress, which largely follows the president’s lead on foreign policy, decided to override Obama’s veto, Zogby said, “Because it was about 9/11; it was about Arabs; and it’s an election year. That’s the dangerous brew that pushed this legislation.”

Zogby said lawsuits against Saudi Arabia will amount to “a lot of nothing” other than causing a boom in the industry of court lawyers.

He predicted that the plaintiffs will get convictions at the district level after spending years on trials, but higher courts will reverse the verdicts.

“They’re going to look to have the trial where they are sure they have a favourable jury and a favourable verdict,” Zogby said. “In jury trial they’re going to win a whole big chunk of change.”

There are two levels of appeal in federal cases. A lawsuit starts in the district court. Verdicts can be challenged at the Court of Appeals. Final appeals are made at the US Supreme Court, the highest court in the country.

Zogby said higher courts will throw out the cases against Saudi Arabia as unconstitutional, or as a matter outside the jurisdiction of the court.

“What will happen is that you’ve done a lot of damage to the relationship (between Riyadh and Washington), you’ve undone centuries of international relations and law, and you will force governments and individuals to spend tens of millions of dollars in legal fees,” he said. “That’s what’s especially irritating about this.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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