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9/11 Victims Bill Becomes Law Over Obama Veto

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 04, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

For the first time during his time in office, Congress voted to override President Obama's veto, passing a bill that allows 9/11 victims' families to sue Saudi Arabia for its role in the terror attacks. The Obama administration said it's sympathetic to victims' families, but opposed the bill, fearing that allowing such lawsuits for Americans in this case would open the door to legal challenges against American officials in other countries in the future. But the vote wasn't very close: The Senate voted 97-1 in favor of the override; the House vote was 348-77 in favor.

So what does the new law mean? And is Congress already having buyer's remorse over the override?

Saudi Liability

The new law would allow families of American victims to sue the Saudi government in American courts. If the suit is successful, those courts could seize Saudi assets to pay for any judgment. The New York Times has reported that Saudi officials have warned they "might need to sell off hundreds of billions of dollars in holdings in the United States to avoid such an outcome."

The new legislation could worsen already strained relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has consistently denied any role in the September 11 terror attacks. And while the commission charged with investigating the attacks found "no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded" Al Qaeda, it didn't definitively clear all Saudi officials of playing some part in the plot. If a connection could be proven, the Saudi government could be on the hook for damages.

American Liability

President Obama remains opposed to opening up terror litigation. "I think it was a mistake, and I understand why it happened," he told military personnel at Fort Lee. "It's an example of why sometimes, you have to do what's hard, and frankly, I wish Congress here had done what's hard. I didn't expect it, because if you're perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that's a hard vote for people to take. But it would have been the right thing to do."

The concern is that suits can be filed against Saudi Arabia itself, when most nations have sovereign immunity in such lawsuits. In a case of what's good for the goose is good for the gander, American officials are worried citizens in other countries could sue the United States for military actions taken overseas. "Any legislation that affects sovereign immunity should take into account the associated risks to our national security," said CIA director John Brennan. And even some congresspeople may have regretted their vote -- almost 30 senators signed a letter within hours of the override, concerned that the U.S. could face lawsuits "as a result of important military or intelligence activities."

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