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Could Congress defy Saudi Arabia on a bill for 9/11 victims’ families?

The president and much of the international community believes it undermines a fundamental precept of international law. But Congress looks ready to override Obama’s veto.

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An exterior view of the Capitol Building in Washington is seen June 16.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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President Obama vetoed on Friday a bill that would peel away legal protections for state actors and allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for alleged support of the attackers. The bill returns now to Congress, where an override vote is expected — what would be the first of Obama’s time in office. Two-thirds of both chambers are needed to surmount a veto.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), as the bill is known, would reform a 1976 law granting other countries immunity in US courts — a principle known as “sovereign immunity” — opening up the possibility of lawsuits brought by private citizens against states suspected of helping terrorists carry out attacks on US soil. 

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The bill’s apparently strong odds of an override point to US lawmakers' increasing willingness to pull back on historically close ties with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil and a prominent global funder of fundamentalist religious doctrine. With Saudi oil exports to the US hitting a six-year low in 2015, as Bloomberg notes, and the near future seeming rosy for US energy independence, legislators may be feeling emboldened. Another bipartisan bill introduced this month would block the Pentagon’s sale of military equipment to the kingdom, citing the Saudis' poor human rights record and killing of “thousands of civilians” in an ongoing conflict in Yemen.

Supporters of JASTA say acts of terrorism should join existing exceptions to the law, such as business and tort claims. The victims’ families are pushing for it as a means of elucidating what they suspect to be Saudi responsibility.

"If all JASTA does is say that the families of these murdered Americans can have their day in court," co-counsel Jack Quinn told NPR, "why is [Saudi Arabia] on the other side?" And if Saudi Arabia’s leaders are indeed innocent of any responsibility, as they claim, "why be afraid of an exploration of the facts?" 

President Obama, along with national security officials and much of the international community, warn of undermining a precept that serves as an important basis for states’ power to make foreign policy decisions, especially on military matters.

In a three-page veto statement, Obama wrote that he had "deep sympathy" for the victims’ families, who had "suffered grievously" from "the worst act of terrorism on US soil."

But JASTA, he said, would damage relations with US allies and hamper government efforts against state sponsors of terrorism by "taking such matters out of the hands of natural security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts."

"Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally,” wrote the president, leading to lawsuits against the United States for the actions of armed groups or law-enforcement bodies abroad that had received aid, equipment, or training from the US.

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“If any of these litigants were to win judgments ... they would begin to look to the assets of the US government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States."

Saudi Arabia has reacted bitterly, threatening to freeze hundreds of billions of US assets inside the country, and its lobbyists have fanned out across Washington in a last-minute campaign to stop the bill, as the New York Times has reported.

In a statement issued after Obama’s veto, the families who sought the bill’s passage said they were "outraged and dismayed," while expressing confidence in the bill's prospects.

"We are deeply grateful for the unanimous bipartisan support that JASTA has in Congress, and we look forward to the Senate and House fulfilling their commitments by quickly overriding this veto," they said.