Giancarlo Diaz, Baruch College:
President Obama in the last year of his term has faced his first veto override on September 28 2016. The bill called Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) was voted on by the Senate 97-1 and in the House 384-77. The bill would allow U.S. citizens to file a civil action suit against foreign states for damages caused by terrorism on American soil. The bill itself makes no direct mention of the 9/11 attacks or of Saudi Arabia but with the recent declassification of the 28 pages in the 9/11 report the implication are it would allow 9/11 families to sue the Saudi government an official ally of the U.S. for damages.
When he vetoed the bill, President Obama reasoned that it would put the principle of sovereign immunity at risk and possibly endanger the nation’s relationship with our Middle-Eastern ally Saudi Arabia. Sovereign immunity is the concept that governments should remain immune to lawsuits from foreign courts and this principle is maintained by mutual reciprocation. Proponents of the President claim that JASTA would degrade sovereign immunity, which could subsequently involve the U.S. government in endless court battles and lawsuits over drone strikes or CIA operations. The Obama administration also heavily relies on both Saudi intelligence in the war against terrorism and on the Saudi military in combating rebels in Yemen. The Saudi government has already voiced their displeasure with the potential legislation threating to sell 750 billion dollars worth of American treasury securities but with the declining price of oil and reliance on the U.S. government for aid, the Saudi government’s bark appears to be worse than their bite since they made no moves to sell their U.S. bonds with the bills’ passing. With the outcome of the override pretty much guaranteed, President Obama tried to preemptively ease his administrations’ tensions with the Saudi government since their support is crucial to American interest in the Middle East
The JASTA bill is unique in its ubiquitous bi-partisan support. Many Congressman have argued that the bill provides justice and closure for the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Although this is a truly laudable goal, the JASTA bill essentially only gives U.S. citizens the ability to sue foreign governments and does not provide any funding for legal fees. Without the State Departments’ support for enforcement, the bill is essentially a paper tiger. Also in an ironic juxtaposition, Congress recently approved a bill that would send 1.5 billon dollars in aid for Saudi Arabia. The reality with JASTA is that it was an easy vote for our Congress to repeat the tired line of “reaching across the aisle” without actually doing much.
The JASTA bill was first presented to Congress in December of 2009, but was tabled until recently because of the release of the once redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 report. The 28 pages of the over 400 paged 9/11 report were classified under President George W Bush but were declassified this past July. In the 28 pages, the report initially states that “While in the United States, some of the September 11 hijackers were in contact with, and received support or assistance from, individuals who may be connected the Saudi Government.” The CIA and FBI even admit that both agencies were initially inattentive at investigating the matter because of the Saudi government’s position as a U.S. ally. The report then proceed to list a number of suspicious incidents where alleged Saudi intelligence officers and even an official Saudi diplomat perhaps offered support to the 9/11 hijackers. To note the 28 pages do state that “neither the FBI or CIA witness were able to identify definitively the extent of Saudi support for terrorist activity globally or within the United States and the extent to which such support, if it exist, is intentional or innocent in nature.” In light of the release of such incriminating accusations of the Saudi government, Congress was pressured to vote on JASTA.
The 9/11 families are left in a peculiar situation where they are now able to sue the Saudi government and perhaps even be able to uncover more about any Saudi ties to the 9/11 attacks, However such a legal battle would be difficult against the extremely rich and well connected Saudi Royal Family. In the United States’ war against terrorism and rivalry with Iran, Saudi Arabia is a critical asset. Even if more information were to come out of Saudi connections to Al Qaeda, the U.S. government has already become so entrenched in its alliance with the Saudis that it would be difficult to retract from this relationship without making an already unstable Middle East more unstable. The U.S. is now then left in a conflicting position with a dubious ally coupled with a dubious justice for the 9/11 victims that deserve better.