CNN : Obama vetoes 9/11 lawsuit bill

Friday, September 23, 2016

Obama vetoes 9/11 lawsuit bill

By Kevin Liptak | CNN White House Producer | September 23, 2016

- President Barack Obama vetoed legislation allowing 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia
- The administration warns of unintended consequences
- Congress may override it next week

Washington (CNN)Barack Obama vetoed Friday a bill that would allow family members of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. The White House claimed it could expose US diplomats and servicemen to litigation in other countries.

Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress say they'll override Obama's veto next week.

Obama has now issued 12 vetoes. If successful, Congress' override would be the first of Obama's presidency.

Support for the "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act" ran high among lawmakers, who overwhelmingly passed the bill earlier this year after pressure from victims' groups. The bill would end foreign countries' immunity in the United States from lawsuits, allowing federal civil suits to go forward if the country is determined to have had a hand in a US terror attack.

In his veto message, Obama wrote he had "deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who have suffered grievously."

But he maintained the legislation would seriously hurt US national security interests and cause harm to important alliances, saying it "would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks."

He warned that the law would hurt the effectiveness of the administration's action against terrorism by taking questions of foreign states' involvement in terrorism "out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts."

Obama also said the move would open Americans abroad, especially those serving in the military, to prosecutions by foreign countries, since this would remove the reciprocal agreements that now protect both sides from such lawsuits.

He also pointed to complaints that allied nations have made about the measure. This legislation, he said, "threatens to limit their cooperation on key national security issues, including counterterrorism initiatives, at a crucial time when we are trying to build coalitions, not create divisions."

Demonstrating the difficult political position the White House is in, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, expressed her support for the legislation Friday.

"Clinton continues to support the efforts by Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and his colleagues in Congress to secure the ability of 9/11 families and other victims of terror to hold accountable those responsible," said Jesse Lehrich, a Clinton spokesman. "She would sign this legislation if it came to her desk."

Schumer called the veto "a disappointing decision that will be swiftly and soundly overturned in Congress."

Co-sponsor Sen. John Cornyn said, "I look forward to the opportunity for Congress to override the President's veto, provide these families with the chance to seek the justice they deserve and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States."

White House lobbying effort

In recent days, some of the measure's supporters in Congress have expressed misgivings about the legislation, prompting a new effort by the administration to lobby against the bill.

The lobbying effort on Capitol Hill against the legislation has involved the administration but also representatives for the Saudi government, which denies any involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks. The alliance puts Obama in the unlikely position of defending the same position as the Kingdom, with which he's had longstanding disputes over counterterrorism strategies and human rights.

It also puts the President at odds with family members of 9/11 victims, who protested outside the White House this week and spoke alongside lawmakers from New York and Connecticut on Capitol Hill. They, along with other proponents of the bill, say the language is written narrowly to prevent the types of repercussions the administration predicts.

"The president's rationales to veto JASTA don't hold weight. They are 100% wrong," said Terry Strada, whose husband Tom Strada died in World Trade Center collapse. "For us, the 9/11 families and survivors, all we are asking for is an opportunity to have our case heard in a courtroom. Denying us justice is un-American."

Strada said the lobbying efforts from representatives of Saudi Arabia amounted to an intimidation effort from a country the US still relies on heavily in the fight against terror groups like ISIS.

"Neither the President nor Congress nor lobbyists for foreign kingdoms should be permitted to make us wait another day to pass JASTA," she said.

Veto override plans

Administration officials had been eying a Friday afternoon veto with the hopes of submitting it to lawmakers after Congress adjourned until November's election contests. But prolonged negotiations over a government funding bill and a package to combat Zika virus have delayed the recess, meaning lawmakers are still likely to be in Washington next week to cast an override vote.

"Our assumption is that the veto will be overridden," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on Tuesday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan followed suit Wednesday, saying, "I do think the votes are there for the override." But the Wisconsin Republican also voiced his own doubts about the legislation, saying the implications for lawsuits against Americans worried him.

"I worry about legal matters," Ryan said. "I worry about trial lawyers trying to get rich off of this. And I do worry about the precedence. At the same time, these victims do need to have their day in court."

He was one of several prominent lawmakers who have expressed buyers' remorse for the proposed law. A pair of Republican senators, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have pushed for changes to make it more difficult for the families to pursue lawsuits but could also make it harder for the US to be sued for alleged wrongdoing.

Opponents of the bill gained support Wednesday both from the European Union, which issued its opposition in the form of a "demarche" statement to the US Department of State, and from a bipartisan group of former national security officials, who penned an open letter to Obama.

"The harm this legislation will cause the United States will be both dramatic and long-lasting," the letter read, citing arguments over weakening sovereign immunity. Its signatories included veterans of Republican and Democratic administrations, including Stephen Hadley, a national security adviser to President George W. Bush; Michael Mukasey, a US attorney general under Bush; William Cohen, a secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton; and Richard Clarke, a national security aide to Bush and Clinton.

The letter also noted the law, if enacted, "will most certainly undermine our relationship with one of our most important allies, Saudi Arabia, and damage our relationship with the entire Middle East."

CNN's Dan Merica and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

Stars and Stripes : Is terrorism justice legislation backed by 9/11 families dangerous to military?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Is terrorism justice legislation backed by 9/11 families dangerous to military?

By DIANNA CAHN | STARS AND STRIPES | September 23, 2016

WASHINGTON — Legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in American courts was headed for a showdown Friday as President Barack Obama prepared to veto the bill and the families pressed for its full passage.

Caught in the middle: The question of whether the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, would imperil American diplomats and military servicemembers abroad.

The bill sailed unopposed through both houses of Congress after intense pressure from the families to pass the law on their behalf. If passed, it would remove sovereign immunity from foreign government officials, allowing U.S. citizens to sue them in U.S. courts for alleged acts of terrorism.

Saudi Arabia has threatened to sell off its U.S. assets should the bill become law and close allies France and Holland have warned they will pass reciprocal laws. Obama promised to veto the bill by Friday’s deadline, warning it could open the door to lawsuits against U.S. personnel in other countries.

The families say concerns of global repercussions are alarmist, but in recent days, a group of senior national security, defense and diplomatic officials and a separate group of former military generals, admirals and colonels wrote letters to legislators urging against the law’s passage.

Even as some lawmakers acknowledge newfound concerns, pressure to support the 9/11 families loomed large and Congress appeared primed to override the veto.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a co-sponsor of the bill, upset families when he voiced concerns. He told Stars and Stripes Thursday by email that he was disappointed that the choice had come down to supporting Saudi Arabia or supporting the families, when such serious considerations fell in the middle.

“ ‘Either or’ politics is not where I want to go, but it may wind up that if nobody’s trying to accommodate this problem, we’re just going to vote,” he said. “And if I have to vote, I’m going to vote to override the veto.”

Families of those killed and hurt in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have argued that the law is narrow and limited to acts of terrorism, not acts of war. Objectors warned that while U.S. law might differentiate between the two, it would not prevent less limited laws from being enacted in other countries. The White House also argued the classification of terrorism should remain an executive authority, not become a question for the courts.

“The safety and security of our diplomats, intelligence officers, military and other senior officials of the U.S. government and their ability to perform their duties without foreign influence or intervention would be seriously imperiled,” according to an open letter written this week by former Defense Secretary William Cohen, former acting CIA director Michael Morell and seven other former national security, intelligence and judicial leaders including advisers to Obama and President George W. Bush.

“The perpetrators of terrorism should and will continue to be pursued through our vast military, law enforcement and intelligence capabilities,” it said. But dismantling sovereign immunity “will put our government officials and military personnel at extreme risk and impede the ability of the community of nations to work together at a time when global cooperation in the war on terrorism is essential.”

On Tuesday, 9/11 families protested in front of the White House, calling on Obama to pass the act and making clear they saw his promise to veto as a direct affront.

“I am frustrated, angry and tired of the mistruths being carelessly spewed about this legislation,” Terry Strada, the chair of the 9/11 families and survivors group, said in a news conference near the Capitol after Tuesday’s protest.

Strada said JASTA was “carefully, narrowly crafted” over years by top lawmakers, and concerns about reciprocal laws were flawed. Diplomats are protected by the Vienna Conventions, she said, while the military is protected by wording in the legislation excluding acts of war.

“To equate what we do to protect ourselves from terrorism with what others do in support of terrorism completely misreads the bill,” Strada said. “Denying us justice is un-American.”

Lt. Col. Pat Testerman, a retired Air Force commander, said he strongly supported justice for the 9/11 families yet worries that the law would allow other countries to define things differently.

He could imagine a scenario in which a young Air Force lieutenant makes an error in an act of war – say, an erroneous target of a drone attack that kills civilians – and is tried in a foreign court for an act of terror, he said.

“What we define as acts of terrorism or acts of war is up to interpretation,” Testerman said. “And we open ourselves up to significant danger with this.”

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Sept. 12 that the law could “have an impact on our relationship with every country around the world in a way that has negative consequences for the United States, for our national security and for our men and women in uniform.”

Recent reports suggest some lawmakers might be wavering in their support for overriding the veto. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said this week that she was having second thoughts about the bill “because I think it launches a number of unforeseen happenings.”

On Friday, a group of retired military leaders signed a letter being passed around on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to reconsider an override.

“Congress must take great care to ensure that soldiers must be able to do their jobs without threat of foreign influence or repercussion,” it said. “We must do all we can to protect them from possible legal action in faraway lands.”

Earnest said the president would continue to lobby lawmakers to let his veto stand. But he recognized that despite warnings about possible consequences, the 9/11 families held strong sway.

“There’s no denying the political potency of this issue,” he said. “But the president believes that it’s important to look out for our country and to look out for our servicemembers.”
Twitter: @DiannaCahn