Congress’ vote on terrorism bill splits opinions in Colorado

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Washington, D.C.-, October 3, 2016 | comments

WASHINGTON — Congress voted last week to allow families of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims to sue the Saudi government, prompting as much controversy in Colorado as in Washington.

The vote overrode a veto by President Barack Obama, who warned it could create a backlash of lawsuits against Americans abroad and alienate a key Middle Eastern ally.

Most members of Congress said the magnitude of the attack and its victims warranted an exception to the rule that foreign governments cannot be sued in U.S. courts.

The U.S. government declassified 28 pages in July of a congressional report that indicated al Qaida operatives met with a few Saudi officials to elicit their support for the Sept. 11 attack. The government of Saudi Arabia denies the allegations.

Even Denver resident Cathy Faughnan, whose husband was killed in New York’s World Trade Center, expressed doubt about the legislation.

“I do agree with the president that it could set a bad precedent,” Faughnan told The Colorado Statesman. “I’m not sure that suing a government is going to change anything.”

She said the lawsuit is likely to include a class action claim. She said she was uncertain whether she would join the lawsuit.

Her husband, Chris, died while he worked on the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center for the financial firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He was 37 years old and left three children.

Her concerns about the new law were shared by Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Arvada, who said, “After carefully reading the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) and President Obama’s veto justification, I voted against JASTA because it risks the safety and security of our military and U.S. officials abroad and sets a dangerous precedent with ramifications for our national security and foreign policy.”

He called Sept. 11, 2001, “one of the darkest days in U.S. history.”

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, also voted against overriding Obama’s veto, saying, “This bill was meant to address an unthinkable loss but it opens the door to further damage. It would erode the principle of sovereign immunity that protects U.S. officials working on behalf of our country overseas.”

However, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, said liability for sponsors of terrorism could help prevent further attacks.

“I joined with an overwhelming majority in the House and Senate to override President Obama’s veto and provide justice for the families of 9/11 victims,” Lamborn said in a statement. “By overriding this veto, Congress effectively closes the loopholes that allow foreign sponsors of terrorism to escape responsibility and liability for their crimes against our nation.”

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, who also voted for the bill, agreed with Lamborn, saying, “We, as a country, cannot allow foreign governments, who support terrorism, to escape responsibility for their complicit hand in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.”

The new legislation reaches far beyond the Sept. 11 attacks to create liability in U.S. courts for actions anywhere in the world that support terrorism against the United States.

Until Congress approved the law, foreign governments or their agents who support terrorism could be sued only for their actions within U.S. territory. Now, their actions on foreign soil could make them liable if the result is an attack against targets in the United States.

Perlmutter and DeGette were in a small minority of federal lawmakers when they voted against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

The House of Representatives approved the bill by a 348-77 margin. The Senate approved it hours earlier by a 97-1 margin.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was the only senator to vote against it. The vote was the first time one of President Obama’s dozen vetoes had been overridden by Congress.

Obama wrote a letter to Senate leaders last week before the vote in which he warned that voting the bill into law “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks … The consequences of [the bill] could be devastating to the Department of Defense and its service members — and there is no doubt that the consequences could be equally significant for our foreign affairs and intelligence communities.”

Much of the support for the legislation came from families of persons killed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Some of them organized an advocacy group called the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism.

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers who slammed airliners into the Word Trade Center, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania countryside were Saudi citizens.

“We rejoice in this triumph and look forward to our day in court and a time when we may finally get more answers regarding who was truly behind the attacks,” Terry Strada, national chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism, said in a statement.

Content originally published by the Colorado Statesman on October 3rd, 2016.
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