As expected, President Obama vetoed a bill Friday that would give families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks the ability to sue Saudi Arabia, setting up the potential for the first congressional veto override of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Mr. Obama said in his veto message that he has “deep sympathy” for the families of the victims, but the bill would invite retaliatory lawsuits against U.S. personnel abroad and weakens national security by allowing individual judges, instead of the executive branch, to designate foreign governments as sponsors of terrorism.
The legislation “does not enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests,” Mr. Obama said.
Some lawmakers called immediately for Congress to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds vote. The House and Senate approved the measure by voice votes.
“It’s disappointing the president chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican. “Even more disappointing is the president’s refusal to listen to the families of the victims taken from us on September 11, who should have the chance to hold those behind the deadliest terrorist attack in American history accountable.”
Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump said they would have signed the bill. Mr. Trump, the Republican nominee, called the veto “shameful.”
“That President Obama would deny the parents, spouses and children of those we lost on that horrific day the chance to close this painful chapter in their lives is a disgrace,” Mr. Trump said. “These are wonderful people, and as a lifelong New Yorker, I am saddened that they will, for now, not have that opportunity.”
A majority of the 19 al Qaeda suicide hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens. Saudi Arabia has denied that its government or any of its top officials played any role in supporting or encouraging the attack.
The White House had been saying for months that Mr. Obama was likely to veto the legislation. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the administration doesn’t know whether Congress has enough votes to override the president’s veto, saying some lawmakers have expressed concerns about the legislation privately but voted for it anyway.
“We certainly are counting votes and having a number of conversations with members of Congress in both parties and both houses of Congress,” Mr. Earnest said. “One of the particular challenges of counting votes in this instance is the frequency with which we hear private concerns expressed that don’t match the public votes that are cast.”
With the White House acknowledging that a veto is politically unpopular, Mr. Obama launched into a defense of his administration’s counterterrorism strategies.
“Over the past eight years, I have directed my administration to pursue relentlessly al Qaeda, the terrorist group that planned the 9/11 attacks,” among other actions, he said.
Mr. Obama said U.S. courts should not be allowed to determine whether a foreign government sponsored terrorism.
“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,” he said.
The president said the legislation “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 parties.”
He also said the bill “threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners.”
“A number of our allies and partners have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill,” Mr. Obama said.