When in doubt, attack the government. That’s what George W. Bush did in 2003—and he didn’t even attack the government of 9/11 attackers! And attacking a government for the action of 15 of its citizens is what Congress just did.
Just days after the 15th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by 19 individuals, Congress passed Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) allowing any U.S. citizen to sue any country with the claim that the country financed or otherwise aided and abetted a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. People in the U.S. could already sue countries designated as “state sponsors of terrorism”; currently, that list includes only three countries—Iran, Syria and Sudan—because the designation is assigned only after very careful review by national security, intelligence and foreign policy officials. It isn’t left to private litigants and judges.
Congress has voted not once but twice to throw a long-held principle of international law, sovereign immunity, under the bus by removing countries from immunity from lawsuits in the courts of other countries. JASTA was touted as helping 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia through the court system, but it also allows courts to waive claims to foreign sovereign immunity in situations involving acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. Congress passed the bill, and after President Obama vetoed the bill, Congress passed an override to his veto in the first time of the seven years, eight months, and eight days of the president’s terms.
Many legislators who voted in favor of the override are now saying “oops!” while President Obama has the right to say “I told you so.” After 123 Democrats and 225 Republicans of 425 representatives in the House and 97 out of 98 senators voted for the override, they’re beginning to consider the consequences of a law that might produce laws in other countries that force U.S. government officials and military members into foreign courts. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said that these lawsuits would expose the U.S. to tremendous liability although he voted in favor of the law. He said, “We’ve got assets deployed all around the world more than any country. So if sovereign immunity recedes, we’re the nation that is most exposed.” While voting for the law, Corker said that Congress “has [not] functioned in an appropriate manner as it relates to a very important piece of legislation.”
President Obama warned that there could be lawsuits against the U.S. for “actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training.” There has to be proof of liability, but U.S. taxpayers will be on the hook for fighting the vastly increasing number of lawsuits.
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said:
“The biggest issue is that [JASTA is] … not limited to Saudi Arabia, and it’s likely to have a much larger impact on the U.S. government than the Saudi government, because the U.S. government takes rules very seriously.”
He gave an example of lawsuits filed against the federal government by victims of drone strikes and other American military activities. John B. Bellinger III, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser from 2005 to 2009, said measures in other countries “are hardly likely to be as precise and surgical as our Congress has been.”
An immediate reaction from Saudi Arabia could be their removal of hundreds of billions of dollars in assets from the U.S. causing problems for the economy.
GOP congressional leaders are now saying that they need to revisit the law—the day before they left town until after the general election that occurs in 40 days. “I’d like to think that there’s a way we could fix [it] so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas, while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-WI) who supported the bill in public statements without casting a vote in the override. You think, Rep. Ryan!? Yet the man who controls legislative access to all bills hasn’t said that he will address the issue in the lame duck session in November and December.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who did vote for the override, said that the law could have “unintended ramifications” and needed “further discussion.” You think!? McConnell laid the blame on the passage of the override on the White House because it didn’t make a forceful argument about its threats to U.S. officials. The bill has been pending only seven years, but McConnell claimed that “nobody had really focused on the potential downsides in terms of our international relationships.” [I always worry when I know more about the “potential downsides” than members of the congress, especially those who have been there forever and call themselves “leaders.”]
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that comments from lawmakers [such as those like McConnell] are a “deeply embarrassing” display of “rapid-onset buyer’s remorse.” He added:
“The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting on, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously. All of that communications was made public before Congress passed the first vote to put this bill into law yesterday. Ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members.”
The White House told legislators that the bill is too broad and could set a dangerous precedent, inviting other nations to respond by suing American diplomats, military personnel and other officials in foreign courts over U.S. foreign policy actions. What part of that information didn’t the legislators understand? The vast majority of legislators ignored statements from not only the White House but also national security officials, the European Union’s delegation to the United States, and business leaders who warned the law will damage relations with Saudi Arabia and encourage other countries to pass laws that would allow them to target U.S. officials. Yet the GOP, which can’t find time to replace a Supreme Court justice or pass a long-term budget bill, pushed through the bill before the current recess.
The understanding about JASTA’s disastrous effects seemed to come during the voting. Before the Senate finished voting 97-1 to override Obama’s veto, 28 senators signed a letter that they would support legislation to blunt its impact if [when?] other countries retaliate. [Here’s the letter with the signatures. Check for your senator if you can read the handwriting!] Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose signature I didn’t see on the letter, said: “I’m for the 9/11 families having their day in court, but I’m also for not exposing our people unnecessarily. If you want to go forward in the Mideast without Saudi Arabia as an ally, then be careful what you wish for.”
The only senator seeming to have an understanding of the bill, Majority Harry Reid (D-NV), was the only senator to have complete understanding of the bill’s ramifications. Sens. Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders didn’t vote on the bill.
The Republican party has hit a new low: they passed a bad bill that President Obama told them was a bad bill; the president vetoed the bill; the GOP pushed through an override after the president told them again how it was a bad bill; they discovered how bad the bill is; and GOP legislators blamed President Obama for not forcing them to understand that this is a bad bill. As Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) said on All In with Chris Hayes tonight in explaining that the GOP blames President Obama for everything. If Barack Obama walked on water, the GOP would say that he does it because he can’t swim.
Congress may be able to change a terrible vote. Buyer’s remorse for a vote for Donald Trump can’t be taken back. Voters in the United States need to consider what they would get with a man who wants the office of the presidency only for his own benefit. Supporters think that he will take care of him, but Trump takes care of only himself.