US Senate clears way for 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia

US Senate clears way for 9/11 families to sue Saudi Arabia

The US Senate has acted to override President Barack Obama's veto of September 11 legislation which would allow the families of victims to sue Saudi Arabia for allegedly backing the terrorists involved in the tragedy.

Five weeks before elections, officials refused to oppose a measure backed by 9/11 families who say they are still seeking justice 15 years after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

The bill permits them to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for the kingdom's alleged backing of the 19 hijackers who carried out the plot. Saudi Arabia is staunchly opposed to the measure.

Senators voted 97-1 to override President Obama's veto. The lone "no" vote was Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.

A House vote on President Obama's veto was expected later. If the House also overrides, the bill becomes law.

During his nearly two terms in office, President Obama has never had a veto overridden by Congress.

Despite reversing the president's decision, several senators said defects in the bill could open a legal Pandora's box, triggering lawsuits from people in other countries seeking redress for injuries or deaths caused by military actions in which the US may have had a role.

In a letter delivered to Senate leaders, President Obama said the bill would erode sovereign immunity principles that prevent foreign litigants "from second-guessing our counter-terrorism operations and other actions that we take every day".

But one of the bill's leading proponents, Sen John Cornyn, dismissed President Obama's concerns as "unpersuasive".

Sen Cornyn and other supporters said the bill is narrowly tailored and applies only to acts of terrorism that occur on US soil.

"This bill is about respecting the voices and rights of American victims," Sen Cornyn said.

Families of the victims and their lawyers disputed concerns over the legislation as "fear-mongering" aimed at derailing the legislation that they have long urged Congress to pass.

Sen Ben Cardin of Maryland, one of the Democrats who broke with President Obama and voted to override, said "the risks of shielding the perpetrators of terrorism from justice are greater than the risks this legislation may pose to America's presence around the world".

The legislation gives victims' families the right to sue in US court for any role that elements of the Saudi government may have played in the 2001 attacks.

Fifteen of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Courts would be permitted to waive a claim of foreign sovereign immunity when an act of terrorism occurs inside US borders, according to the terms of the bill.

Still, a group of national-security minded legislators pledged to discuss how to repair problem areas during the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress.

But the fact that legislation could pass both chambers of Congress without closer scrutiny left at least a few senators chiding themselves for not examining more closely the bill's potential ramifications.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or Jasta, moved to the floor of the Senate in May and passed by voice vote. The bill cleared the House earlier this month, also by voice vote.

"We didn't pay much attention to this," said Sen Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. "And boy is that ever a lesson learned."

President Obama vetoed the measure last week, telling lawmakers the bill would make the US vulnerable to retaliatory litigation.

In his letter to Sen Reid, the president said other countries could attempt to use Jasta to justify similar immunity exceptions to target US policies and activities that they oppose.

"As a result, our nation and its armed forces, State Department, intelligence officials and others may find themselves subject to lawsuits in foreign courts," President Obama wrote.

As an example, US troops, including those involved in counter-terrorism operations, "would be vulnerable to accusations that their activities contributed to acts that allegedly violated foreign laws," the president said.

In a separate letter sent on Monday to a senior House member, Defence Secretary Ash Carter described the potential for foreign litigants to seek classified intelligence data and analysis and sensitive operational information to establish their cases in what could be an "intrusive discovery process".

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