In an extraordinary three-page veto message to Congress, Obama said he has “deep sympathy” for the families of victims of terrorism, but that the legislation would interfere with the president’s ability to conduct foreign policy.
President Obama vetoed legislation on Friday that would allow families of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for any role in the plot, setting up an extraordinary confrontation with a Congress that unanimously backed the bill and has vowed to uphold it.
Mr. Obama’s long-anticipated veto of the measure, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), is the 12th of his presidency. But unless those who oppose the bill can persuade lawmakers to drop their support by next week, it will lead to the first congressional override of a veto during Mr. Obama’s presidency — a familiar experience for presidents in the waning months of their terms.
In his veto message to Congress, Mr. Obama said the legislation “undermines core U.S. interests,” upending the normal means by which the government singles out foreign nations as state sponsors of terrorism and opening American officials and military personnel to legal jeopardy. It would put United States assets at risk of seizure by private litigants overseas and “create complications” in diplomatic relations with other countries, he added.
“I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, who have suffered grievously,” Mr. Obama wrote. But enacting the measure “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.”
Mr. Obama issued the veto behind closed doors on Friday without fanfare, reluctant to call attention to a debate that has pitted him against the families of terrorism victims. Not long before he did so, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, who had previously backed the measure, confirmed that if she were in the Oval Office, she would sign it.
Donald J. Trump, the Republican nominee, also said he would have signed the bill, calling Mr. Obama’s veto “shameful.”
The leaders of both chambers, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, have said they expect the override vote to be successful, which requires a two-thirds majority.
Mr. McConnell’s office said it would consider the veto message “as soon as practicable in this work period,” essentially ruling out the possibility, pressed by opponents of the measure, that the vote could be delayed until after the elections, when lawmakers might feel less political pressure to support the bill.
Still, pressure is building on Congress to reconsider the measure, whose passage underlined the lasting political clout of the 9/11 families that have long demanded it — and the diminishing standing of Saudi Arabia and its supporters in Washington.
Mr. Obama argues that the measure would overturn longstanding “principles” of international law that shield governments from lawsuits, potentially opening the United States to a raft of litigation in foreign countries.
But supporters note that those principles already have several exceptions, and contend they are merely seeking to add another narrow one that would allow United States courts to hold foreign governments responsible if they assisted or funded a terrorist attack that killed Americans in the United States.
Saudi officials have denied that the kingdom had any role in the Sept. 11 plot, and an independent commission that investigated the attacks found “no evidence” that the government or any senior official funded it. But the commission’s narrow wording left open the possibility that less senior officials or parts of the Saudi government had played a role.
The Saudi government has deployed powerful lobbyists and public relations professionals to try to kill the measure. In recent days, it has turned to national security leaders, Fortune 100 corporate executives and retired military personnel for backing.
White House officials were making the case to lawmakers that they should sustain the president’s veto.
“We continue to make a forceful case to members of Congress that overriding the president’s veto means that this country will start pursuing a less forceful approach in dealing with state sponsors of terrorism and potentially opens up U.S. service members, and diplomats and even companies to spurious lawsuits in kangaroo courts around the world,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said before Mr. Obama vetoed the measure. He acknowledged that the stance was “politically inconvenient,” given the strong sympathy that exists for the families of the victims.
Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, called Mr. Obama’s action “disappointing,” and said it would be “swiftly and soundly overturned in Congress.” “If the Saudis did nothing wrong, they should not fear this legislation,” Mr. Schumer said.
In a statement, the Sept. 11 families said they were “outraged and dismayed at the president’s veto” and the “unconvincing and unsupportable reasons that he offers as explanation.”
“When we left at 5 o’clock yesterday, we were feeling very confident that we would have the votes for the override, but we’ve got to maintain that support through until next week,” said Terry Strada, a leading activist on the bill who lost her husband on Sept. 11 and was one of dozens of family members who traveled to Washington this week to lobby lawmakers to continue backing it. “Nobody is going to sleep this whole weekend.”
THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release September 23, 2016
TO THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES:
I am returning herewith without my approval S. 2040, the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” (JASTA), which would, among other things, remove sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated state sponsors of terrorism.
I have deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), who have suffered grievously. I also have a deep appreciation of these families’ desire to pursue justice and am strongly committed to assisting them in their efforts.
Consistent with this commitment, over the past 8 years, I have directed my Administration to pursue relentlessly al-Qa’ida, the terrorist group that planned the 9/11 attacks. The heroic efforts of our military and counterterrorism professionals have decimated al-Qa’ida’s leadership and killed Osama bin Laden. My Administration also strongly supported, and I signed into law, legislation which ensured that those who bravely responded on that terrible day and other survivors of the attacks will be able to receive treatment for any injuries resulting from the attacks. And my Administration also directed the Intelligence Community to perform a declassification review of “Part Four of the Joint Congressional Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11,” so that the families of 9/11 victims and broader public can better understand the information investigators gathered following that dark day of our history.
Notwithstanding these significant efforts, I recognize that there is nothing that could ever erase the grief the 9/11 families have endured. My Administration therefore remains resolute in its commitment to assist these families in their pursuit of justice and do whatever we can to prevent another attack in the United States. Enacting JASTA into law, however, would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil. This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here. The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why
I am returning it without my approval.
First, JASTA threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and
foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of
private litigants and courts.
Any indication that a foreign government played a role in
a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a matter of deep concern and
merits a forceful, unified Federal Government response that
considers the wide range of important and effective tools
available. One of these tools is designating the foreign
government in question as a state sponsor of terrorism, which
carries with it a litany of repercussions, including the foreign
government being stripped of its sovereign immunity before
U.S. courts in certain terrorism-related cases and subjected to
a range of sanctions. Given these serious consequences, state
sponsor of terrorism designations are made only after national
security, foreign policy, and intelligence professionals
carefully review all available information to determine whether
a country meets the criteria that the Congress established.
In contrast, JASTA departs from longstanding standards
and practice under our Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and
threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from
judicial process in the United States based solely upon
allegations by private litigants that a foreign government’s
overseas conduct had some role or connection to a group or
person that carried out a terrorist attack inside the
United States. This would invite consequential decisions to be
made based upon incomplete information and risk having different
courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of
individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist
activities directed against the United States — which is
neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond
to indications that a foreign government might have been behind
a terrorist attack.
Second, JASTA would upset longstanding international
principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules
that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for
U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger
international presence, by far, than any other country, and
sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its
Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from
foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect
U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private
litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts
from foreign governments that are not designated as state
sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such
foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to
terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine
these longstanding principles that protect the United States,
our forces, and our personnel.
Indeed, reciprocity plays a substantial role in foreign
relations, and numerous other countries already have laws that
allow for the adjustment of a foreign state’s immunities based
on the treatment their governments receive in the courts of the
other state. Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign
governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic
courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or
U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform — for
allegedly causing injuries overseas via U.S. support to third
This could lead to suits against the United States or
U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group
that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment
by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that
received U.S. training, even if the allegations at issue
ultimately would be without merit. And if any of these
litigants were to win judgments — based on foreign domestic
laws as applied by foreign courts — they would begin to look to
the assets of the U.S. Government held abroad to satisfy those
judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for
the United States.
Third, JASTA threatens to create complications in our
relationships with even our closest partners. If JASTA were
enacted, courts could potentially consider even minimal
allegations accusing U.S. allies or partners of complicity in
a particular terrorist attack in the United States to be
sufficient to open the door to litigation and wide-ranging
discovery against a foreign country — for example, the country
where an individual who later committed a terrorist act traveled
from or became radicalized. A number of our allies and partners
have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill.
By exposing these allies and partners to this sort of litigation
in U.S. courts, JASTA 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.
The 9/11 attacks were the worst act of terrorism on
U.S. soil, and they were met with an unprecedented
U.S. Government response. The United States has taken robust
and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims
of the 9/11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing
financial compensation for victims and their families to
conducting worldwide counterterrorism programs to bringing
criminal charges against culpable individuals. I have continued
and expanded upon these efforts, both to help victims of
terrorism gain justice for the loss and suffering of their loved
ones and to protect the United States from future attacks. The
JASTA, however, does not contribute to these goals, does not
enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and
undermines core U.S. interests.
For these reasons, I must veto the bill.
THE WHITE HOUSE,
September 23, 2016.
# # #
House of Representatives passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)
- § 1602 – Findings and declaration of purpose
- § 1603 – Definitions
- § 1604 – Immunity of a foreign state from jurisdiction
- § 1605 – General exceptions to the jurisdictional immunity of a foreign state
- § 1605A – Terrorism exception to the jurisdictional immunity of a foreign state
- § 1606 – Extent of liability
- § 1607 – Counterclaims
- § 1608 – Service; time to answer; default
- § 1609 – Immunity from attachment and execution of property of a foreign state
- § 1610 – Exceptions to the immunity from attachment or execution
- § 1611 – Certain types of property immune from execution