Congress just added another item to its to-do list for a pending lame duck session. In addition to finding agreement on how to fund the government for the next year, lawmakers may now need to figure out how to undo some of the damage they have done to US relations with Saudi Arabia -- and possibly other countries -- by overriding President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.
The Senate on Wednesday voted 97-1 to override the president’s veto. The House followed suit in the afternoon, voting 348 to 77, with one abstention. It was the first time in nearly eight years of his presidency that Obama has had a veto overridden.
The bill that will now become the law of the land amends an earlier law passed in 1976, the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act, which sharply limits the ability of individuals to bring lawsuits against foreign governments in US courts. JASTA, which is aimed particularly at Saudi Arabia, creates an exception that would allow lawsuits against countries found to have sponsored terrorist attacks on US soil.
The bill was passed at the behest of the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks, many of whom continue to believe that the government of Saudi Arabia played a role in financing the attacks in New York and Washington 15 years ago.
The legislation has been hanging around since 2009, but managed to find some traction this year, as the 9/11 victims’ families pressed for passage on the 15-year anniversary of the attacks. However, the Senate version of the bill was passed on a simple voice vote with little discussion or debate. In fact, it was widely believed the bill would not come up for a vote in the House of Representatives.
The White House and multiple executive branch departments and agencies, like Defense, State, and the Central Intelligence Agency, issued powerful warnings against the legislation, saying that its passage would create major complications in international relations, and would likely generate retaliatory action by foreign countries who find their representatives hauled into US courtroom.
That retaliation, they stressed, could extend to US diplomats, service members, and even business people, and would not necessarily be limited to cases where there was a charge of abetting terrorism on a country’s home soil.
“Its potential second- and third-order consequences could be devastating to the Department and its Service members and could undermine our important counterterrorism efforts abroad,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote in a letter to House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas).
“This is likely to increase our country's vulnerability to lawsuits overseas and to encourage foreign governments or their courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials in situations in which we believe the United States is entitled to sovereign immunity,” Carter added.
CIA Director John Brennan also appealed directly to lawmakers, writing, “The principle of sovereign immunity protects U.S. officials every day, and is rooted in reciprocity. 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.”
However, their pleas, as well as a direct request from the president, fell on deaf ears as lawmakers faced a politically sensitive vote just weeks before a general election. Regardless of the wisdom of the decision to override the veto, many lawmakers did not want to give opponents a chance to depict them as insensitive to the families of 9/11 victims or as protectors of foreign countries that sponsor terror attacks.
Even as he prepared to vote to override the president’s veto -- which he did Wednesday morning -- Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) essentially admitted that the effort would create problems that Congress would have to address quickly.
He told reporters, essentially, that lawmakers needed to force the legislation to become law and recognize the problem they had created before they would develop the political will to solve it.
“You are going to see suits filed very quickly,” Corker predicted, with retaliatory action almost certain to follow. Once lawmakers begin to see that happening, he said, “We may be in a much better situation” to make changes.