It could take months for Sept. 11 families’ attorneys to gather documents and conduct interviews to back their claim of official Saudi involvement, no small feat considering that no previous inquiry has uncovered a smoking gun.
Although Congress voted Wednesday to override President Obama’s veto of legislation that allows relatives of Sept. 11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for their deaths, it’s unclear how soon they can expect to make their case in court.
Legal experts say the families still face hurdles — procedural and political — before they see a U.S. court decide whether the Saudi government played a role in the deadly terrorist attacks of 2001, despite the overwhelming support in the Senate, where Obama’s veto was rejected 97-1, and the House, where the tally was 348-77.
It could take months for the families’ attorneys to gather documents and conduct interviews to back their claim of official Saudi involvement, not a small feat considering that no previous inquiry has uncovered a smoking gun.
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“It’s unclear what the legislation ultimately will allow, and what the costs will be and whether it will really allow the families to get any sort of closure or not,” said Michael Gerhardt, constitutional-law professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law. “Lawsuits can be very difficult avenues to try and settle acts of terror.”
Congress, however, was willing to let the families try, handing Obama the first veto override of his administration by margins that left little doubt where the sympathies lay. Only Harry Reid of Nevada, the top Senate Democrat, voted to sustain the president’s veto in the Senate.
The Washington delegation split in the House vote, with Democrats Suzan DelBene and Derek Kilmer joining Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Dan Newhouse and Dave Reichert in voting to override. Democrats Denny Heck, Rick Larsen, Jim McDermott and Adam Smith voted no.
Even most of Obama’s strongest allies on Capitol Hill turned against him on this vote. “Our administration was dead wrong on this issue,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who ordinarily would be among the president’s biggest supporters in Congress.
“This is a decision I do not take lightly,” said Schumer, one of the authors of the legislation. “This bill is near and dear to my heart as a New Yorker, because it would allow the victims of 9/11 to pursue some small measure of justice, finally giving them a legal avenue to pursue foreign sponsors of the terrorist attack that took from them the lives of their loved ones.”
Sept. 11 families said they knew that even with the enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, their day in court was distant.
“I think there’s probably a long road ahead. There was a hope that things would happen really fast, but it doesn’t seem to be working that way,” said Lorie Van Auken, whose husband, Kenneth Van Auken, died in the World Trade Center.
Still, she added, Wednesday’s vote “means we’re one step closer to justice.”
The override comes at an already freighted moment in America’s relations with the kingdom. The Saudi government has vigorously denied it played any role in the Sept. 11 attacks, and the commission investigating the attacks found “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization.” But the commission left open the possibility that some Saudi officials may have played roles. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers, all of whom died in the attacks, were Saudis who had lived in Florida, California, Virginia and New Jersey.
Obama denounced the outcome Wednesday, saying lawmakers had been swayed to cast a political vote for legislation that set a “dangerous precedent” with implications they did not understand and never debated.
“I think it was a mistake, and I understand why it happened,” Obama said at a CNN town-hall meeting with military personnel in Fort Lee, Va. “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.”
There were swift complications. Within hours of their vote, nearly 30 senators signed a letter expressing some reservations about the potential consequences of the law, including the prospect that the United States could face lawsuits in foreign courts “as a result of important military or intelligence activities.”
The administration and some lawmakers were already plotting how they could weaken the law, although there was general pessimism that Congress would agree to any changes. “You got to find consensus,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said after the vote. “Then you need a vehicle.”
It is unclear whether the Saudis will make good on warnings that the kingdom could unload hundreds of billions of dollars worth of assets inside the United States, and some economists have said such a sell-off would do far more damage to Saudi Arabia’s economy than America’s.
But legal experts say there is cause for concern in Saudi Arabia.
The law allows families of the Sept. 11 victims to alter ongoing lawsuits — or file new suits — to directly sue the kingdom and to demand documents and other evidence. It amends a 1976 law that grants foreign countries broad immunity from U.S. lawsuits. Now nations can be sued in federal court if they are found to have played any role in terrorist attacks that killed Americans on U.S. soil.
“From there, the ball goes squarely into the Obama administration’s court,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law.
As Vladeck noted, a provision of the bill allows the U.S. attorney general to intervene in the lawsuits and get a judge to stay any settlement as long as there are continuing talks with the Saudis about a possible resolution.
But the prospects of such discussions ever beginning are uncertain. The Saudi government has long denied any role in the Sept. 11 plot, and any negotiation with the United States could be viewed as acknowledging culpability.
In recent days, Obama, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all wrote letters to Congress warning of the dangers of overriding the veto. John Brennan, the CIA director, released his own statement saying, “Any legislation that affects sovereign immunity should take into account the associated risks to our national security.”
Van Auken, who is among the four outspoken Sept. 11 widows known as the “Jersey Girls,” said, “We’ve been waiting for 15 years. It’s really time to know. It’s time to know what happened and to hold people accountable.”