Don Young votes against override of Obama veto on 9/11 lawsuits

WASHINGTON — Not even 24 hours after voting to override President Barack Obama's veto of a bill allowing families of 9/11 terrorism victims to sue Saudi Arabia, some top Republicans were having second thoughts on Thursday.

But Alaska Rep. Don Young wasn't one of them.

Young was one of just 18 House Republicans to vote no on the override Wednesday, the first ever for an Obama veto, citing national security concerns.

Young said he couldn't support the bill because of "the risk it poses to our national security and the safety of American military and intelligence personnel, diplomats and other Americans serving our country overseas."

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, came around to Young's point of view, saying that the bill may need tweaks when Congress returns after Election Day.

The vote in the House was 348-77. The Senate voted even more overwhelmingly to overturn the veto — 97 to 1 — with agreement from Alaska's Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. Only Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, voted "nay."

The legislation will amend a 1976 law, the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally says that foreign countries are not under the jurisdiction of U.S. courts.


Most of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers — 15 of 19 — were Saudi nationals. Investigative information declassified this year showed that some may have been aided by Saudi Arabian officials, though it is not clear that they were acting on behalf of the government.

Obama vetoed the bill, saying in a statement that while he has "deep sympathy for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001," the law would threaten U.S. national interests.

Obama said the bill would put national security in the hands of "private litigants and courts" rather than national security and foreign policy professionals. Courts could make "consequential" decisions about foreign policy with incomplete information. And it would "upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity," Obama said.

Young, Alaska's sole congressman, uncharacteristically agreed with the president.

"Many have made this vote about overriding the president, rather than an examination of policy," Young said. And as much as Young would love to override an Obama veto, his concerns "outweighed the politics" of the situation, he said.

Murkowski disagreed, saying in a statement that the bill would give terror victims "an avenue to justice by giving them an opportunity to have their case heard in court." Obama's veto, she said, "ignored the clear will of the people, plain and simple."

"I think it was a mistake," Obama said of the veto override, speaking Wednesday on CNN. "I understand why it happened," he said, pointing to the "scars" of the 9/11 attacks. But the bill challenges the United States' sovereign immunity, and "our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal laws," Obama said.

By early Thursday, more top Republicans were coming around to the president's concerns about the national security implications, and talk circulated on Capitol Hill that the bill could be altered after the election, during the "lame duck" period before the new year.

The indication from "conversations that we're hearing is that there may be a push to do that in the future," Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said. It is "clear a number of folks do have concerns with this legislation," he said, including chairmen of committees focused on the armed services, intelligence and foreign relations, as well as a bipartisan group of 28 senators who wrote to the bill's sponsors Wednesday to express concerns.

That group included Alaska's Sen. Sullivan, who ultimately voted to override Obama's veto.

"We understand your purpose in drafting this legislation is to remove obstacles so those who commit or support terrorist acts in the United States face the full range of consequences of the U.S. legal system," senators said in the letter that Sullivan signed. But there are concerns about the bill's implications for national security and foreign policy, they said.

"If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the United States could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities."

On Thursday, McConnell said the bill could have "unintended ramifications," and Ryan told reporters that he hoped a legislative fix could protect the legal rights of service members overseas.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.