Congress Bucks Obama, Passes Bill Letting 9/11 Victims Sue Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Barack Obama listens to a question during a news conference at the conclusion of his participation in the ASEAN Summits in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON ― The House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attacks. The Senate passed the bill in May, so it now heads to President Barack Obama’s desk for his signature.

The White House did not want this to happen.

The bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, would prevent Saudi Arabia and other countries with alleged ties to terrorist groups from invoking their legal immunity in U.S. courts. It would override the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which grants immunity to countries that aren’t designated state sponsors of terrorism.

New York courts routinely dismiss claims filed by families of 9/11 victims against Saudi Arabia for allegedly helping to finance the terrorist attacks. Saudi Arabia denies any role in the attacks, though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

Obama administration officials have been trying to stop the bill for months, warning that it would put Americans overseas at legal risk, and leave the United States vulnerable in court systems around the world. The White House is also well aware of threats by Saudi Arabia to retaliate against the bill becoming law by selling off hundreds of billions of dollars in American assets.

“It’s difficult to imagine the president signing this legislation,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in May.

It’s a rare case of Obama being at odds with leaders in his party. There’s strong bipartisan support for the bill in Congress, and lawmakers appear to have the votes to override a potential veto. The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House passed it Friday on a voice vote with no opposition.

“I’m pleased the House has taken this huge step forward towards justice for the families of the victims of 9/11,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “There are always diplomatic considerations that get in the way of justice, but if a court proves the Saudis were complicit in 9/11, they should be held accountable. If they’ve done nothing wrong, they have nothing to worry about.”

The bill’s passage comes two days before the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in an email on Friday that “our position has not changed” on the bill, which suggests a veto is all but certain.

Sens. Schumer and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wrote to Obama later Friday urging him to sign the bill into law.

“We recognize that your Administration has expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could react negatively if the United States passes this measure,” they wrote. “If Saudi Arabia had no involvement with the attacks, it has nothing to fear from litigation. On the contrary, a court proceeding would allow it to demonstrate its innocence in a neutral, public forum. If Saudi Arabia was culpable, it should be held accountable.”

They’re not the only ones appealing to Obama to sign the bill. Lorie Van Auken, who lost her husband, Kenneth, on 9/11, said the passage of the bill just days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks had added resonance.

“The fact that it’s September, and the air is the same and the color of the sky is the same — I think we all feel it,” said Van Auken, who was one of the “Jersey Girls” whose early quest for answers led to the creation of the 9/11 Commission.

She was among the people cheering in the House visitors’ gallery when the bill passed. But she said their joy was immediately tempered by the idea that Obama could veto the measure.

“I hope President Obama signs it, and sends the message that you can’t just attack us and get away with it,” Van Auken said. “I hope he does the right thing. We deserve our day in court.”

Michael McAuliff contributed reporting.