WASHINGTON – Congress has finally overridden a veto from President Obama, the 13th bill he has rejected, but a pair of leading conservatives tell WND that lawmakers picked the wrong fight.
The House joined the Senate Wednesday afternoon in overwhelmingly voting into law the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA.
The law will allow U.S. families of victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for alleged involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America.
Many of those families, and other critics, have long contended Saudi officials helped in the planning and financing of the attacks.
The bill originally passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate, and the veto override required a two-thirds vote in both chambers.
The override passed in the Senate by a vote of 97 to 1, with only Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., voting against it, and Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., abstaining because they are on the road campaigning on behalf of Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The House voted 348-77 to override the veto, with one member voting present.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., defended her vote by saying, “It isn’t anti-the president.”
While it is the first time Obama has had a veto overridden, his immediate predecessors were also rarely overruled. President George W. Bush suffered just four veto overrides; President Clinton, just two. Most frequently overridden in modern times were presidents Ford and Truman, both experiencing a dozen reversals.
However, despite the overwhelming bipartisan support for JASTA, the issue is not so cut and dry.
Two leading critics of the law are conservatives who have long and substantial records of opposing Islamic extremism: Former Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., and Andrew McCarthy, the former federal prosecutor, constitutional expert and National Review columnist.
They are both lawyers, and both are concerned about the effect the law could have upon what’s called the principle of sovereign immunity.
JASTA allows an exception to that legal and diplomatic principle that effectively prevents one country from being sued in the court of another country.
The law’s proponents say its wording is narrowly tailored to allow only the relatives of the 9/11 victims to sue Saudi officials who may have been complicit in supporting the terror attacks, without violating the sovereign immunity principle.
But the president and other critics say that is not true.
“I think, the more I hear it, that the ‘narrowly tailored’ claim is nonsense,” McCarthy told WND before the veto override was passed.
“The issue is not how tightly we can draft a statute to apply solely to a unique case; it is what other countries will do in response, which will not be at all affected by our effort to be narrow,” he continued.
And, McCarthy warned, “Once you abandon the principle involved here, all bets are off. This is a political issue for diplomacy, not a litigation matter for the courts.”
Bachmann agreed, telling WND, “Andy is exactly right.”
She made the comment while at an airport, between flights, so the former lawmaker did not have time to elaborate. But Bachmann made sure to make clear she was voicing support for the principle, not the president, adding, “Obama’s vaunted diplomacy skills are a failed chimera.”
And it wasn’t just those two conservatives who expressed doubts shortly before the bill became law. Leading members of the Republican establishment appeared to suddenly develop second thoughts.
Last Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., seemed to take both sides of the issue, musing, “I worry about trial lawyers trying to get rich off of this. And I do worry about the precedent. At the same time, these victims do need to have their day in court.”
And Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for changes to the bill that would make it harder to sue U.S. officials in foreign courts.
The European Union sent a letter opposing the bill to the U.S. State Department last week.
Additionally, a group of former national security officials who served in both Democrat and Republican administrations sent a letter to Obama expressing legal concerns over the weakening of sovereign immunity, as well as political concerns about undermining relations with the Saudis.
In vetoing the bill, Obama expressed great sympathy for the relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but in listing his reasons for rejecting the bill, he contended JASTA could open the way for U.S. officials to be sued in foreign courts, even including American troops.
And McCarthy agreed, telling WND he stood by what he wrote in a piece last week in National Review titled, “Obama Is Right to Veto Bill Enabling Suits against the Saudis.”
Because the U.S. has interests and troops around the world, and because those troops are often involved in deadly operations while pursuing national interests and defense, McCarthy argued, “Our nation has far more to lose than most nations by playing this game.”
His key points in the article:
- “Relations between governments are best handled through diplomacy, not legal proceedings.”
- “Legal cases can be unpredictable due to the differences in the predispositions and skill levels of the individual judges and litigators.”
- The potential for bad court decisions “is why countries mutually grant their officials diplomatic immunity, which bars prosecution of even serious crimes committed by diplomatic personnel.”
- “It is why a country’s diplomatic installations are considered its sovereign territory even on foreign soil.”
- “[T]he fervor for this legislation is indeed ironic for Republicans who complain — quite justifiably — that Obama regards international terrorism as a law-enforcement matter to be pursued in the courts.”
- “The judiciary is no more proper a forum for conducting diplomacy than it is for dealing with a national-security challenge.”
- “Obviously, even if it is sued successfully, the Saudi government is never actually going to pay any judgments.”
- “[T]here is also no reason why the Obama administration could not negotiate with the Saudis in an effort to create a fund to compensate 9/11 victims.”
- “Furthermore, there is no restriction, and should be none, on civil lawsuits against individual Saudi citizens and entities that are complicit in terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks.”
McCarthy made it clear he was not sympathetic to the administration’s concerns that the law would enrage the Saudi regime, stating, “We should be enraging them.”
“The United States should stop pretending that the Saudis are a reliable counterterrorism ally,” he continued. “We should be exposing and condemning the regime’s enforcement of barbaric sharia corporal penalties, as well as sharia’s systematic discrimination against women, apostates, non-Muslims, Muslim minorities, and homosexuals.”
Before the override, McCarthy also wondered about the politics of it all.
“Why,” he asked, “when the Republican-controlled Congress is finally willing to fight President Obama to the point of forcing and potentially overriding a veto, do they pick an issue on which Obama is right?”
Indeed, why did GOP lawmakers pick a fight on this issue when they refused to use the power of the purse to defund his entire agenda, including Obamacare, executive orders on immigration, and government funding of Planned Parenthood?
Perhaps because they saw the issue as a political slam-dunk.
McCarthy called its a “grandstanding exhibition” by Congress in support of “the most sympathetic imaginable” private litigants, “the families of 9/11 victims.”
Adding to that perception may be the belief those families now have additional evidence to win in court.
In July, the Obama administration released a redacted and declassified version of a document dubbed the “28 pages” (actually, 29) from the 2002 congressional report on the 9/11 attacks that was withheld from the public.
The pages revealed contacts between some of the the 9/11 hijackers and Saudi officials, including a link between an al-Qaida conspirator and former Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan.
An unlisted number in the conspirator’s phone book was traced to a company that managed Bandar’s estate in Aspen, Colorado, and another unlisted number belonged to a bodyguard who worked at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
There is also evidence Saudi royals paid operatives in contact with the hijackers.
In April, radical Islam expert Paul Sperry wrote a bombshell article in the New York Post, based on well-placed government sources, directly tying Bandar to the 9/11 conspiracy. Bandar was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005. If Bandar was involved, it would likely mean support for the 9/11 attacks went to the highest levels of the Saudi government.
“If a foreign country commits an act of war against you, they are not your ally or your friend no matter who they are. They are your enemy, and they should be treated as such, especially when that enemy continues to fund jihad and build radical mosques and propagate anti-Western hate,” Sperry emphatically told WND in an interview, after the Post article appeared.
Sperry is the former WND Washington bureau chief, former Hoover Institution media fellow and author of “Infiltration: How Muslim Spies and Subversives Have Penetrated Washington,” and the WND book, “Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld that’s Conspiring to Islamize America.”
His article in the Post charged “the U.S. covered up the Saudi role in 9/11” and that case agents he interviewed at the Joint Terrorism Task Forces said “virtually every road led back to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, as well as the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles.”
Sperry told WND, “It’s no coincidence that the Saudi minister of religion and mosques happened to be staying at the same Dulles airport hotel as those 5 Saudi hijackers the night before they flew out of Dulles and attacked the Pentagon.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that officials working at the time in the Saudi Embassy in Washington and the Saudi Consulate in Los Angeles, at a minimum, knew about the 9/11 plot as early as 2000, if not earlier, and there is a ton of circumstantial evidence that some of them actually facilitated the attacks based on phone records, financial transactions and other evidence,” he added.
He asserted the Saudis’ “involvement was deliberately covered up at the highest levels of our government.”
For what it called reasons of “national security,” the Bush administration removed the 28 pages of the bipartisan “Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001” that was published in 2002.
“Saudis forward-deployed a number of radical clerics here in the run-up to Sept. 11, 2001, installing them at the Saudi embassy and the Los Angeles consulate and other consulates while giving them diplomatic cover and pretending they were legitimate employees. Of course, they weren’t diplomats at all – they in fact were recruiters and trainers and groomers of jihadists including the hijackers,” charged Sperry.
In the Post article detailing how the federal government, including the FBI, allegedly stonewalled investigators trying to catch the plotters after the 9/11 attacks, Sperry explained how, “Even Anwar al-Awlaki, the hijackers’ spiritual adviser, escaped our grasp. In 2002, the Saudi-sponsored cleric was detained at JFK on passport fraud charges only to be released into the custody of a ‘Saudi representative.'”
“Many of them worked out of a Saudi Islamic center in northern Virginia chaired by Bandar. One of the lecturers there happened to be Anwar al-Awlaki, who was the American field commander for the hijackers.” Awlaki as killed by the CIA in a drone strike in 2011.
Sperry told WND it was time to cut ties with the Saudis.
“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been a snake pit, but now more than ever, it’s time to slam the lid shut on that snake pit,” he reflected unequivocally.
“There hasn’t been the political will to do it – to stop appeasing and kowtowing to the Saudis – but I think the tide may finally be turning now.”
The Saudis may be sensing that turning tide, too.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations, wrote in Politico last week, that during his most recent trip to Saudi Arabia a top official told him, “We misled you,” and admitted the kingdom had, in fact, long supported Islamic radicals.
The official explained it as a way of defeating anti-royal nationalists, resisting the former Soviet Union and countering Iran.
But then, the radicals the Saudis supported turned on them.
“We did not own up to it after 9/11 because we feared you would abandon or treat us as the enemy,” the Saudi senior official reportedly conceded. “And we were in denial.”
The official maintained the Saudi regime was now committed to a program of modernization, reforming radical Islamic teachings and discontinuing support of Islamist schools abroad.
That would be such a damning admission, and such a radical transformation, that Islamic experts WND contacted were hesitant to comment on the record, instead adopting a “let’s wait and see” attitude.