Congress may be considering a do-over now that it has overridden President Barack Obama’s veto of the bill that allows victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia.
Congress voted to override ( 97-1 in the Senate and 348-77 in the House) Obama’s veto Wednesday. By Thursday, both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill might have unintended consequences — exactly what Obama argued in issuing the veto.
Supporters argued the bill was about pursuing justice for Sept. 11 families.
The law, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, establishes the precedent of allowing the victims of terrorism to hold a state liable for the actions of its citizens, the National Interest explained. The fear is that U.S. soldiers involved in counterterrorism operations now could be targeted in foreign courts.
JASTA makes an exception to the principle of sovereign immunity when it comes to terrorist acts on U.S. soil. Saudi Arabia has long denied it backed the hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudi nationals.
“If we fail to uphold this standard [sovereign immunity] for other countries, we place our own nation’s officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States,” CIA Director John Brennan said.
U.S. law already had allowed lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism such as Sudan, Syria and Iran. The measure enacted Wednesday expands the right to any foreign country involved in an act of terrorism on U.S. soil.
“I would like to think there’s a way we can fix so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas while still protecting the rights of the 9/11 victims,” Ryan said. McConnell added: “It’s worth further discussing. It was certainly not something that was going to be fixed this week.”
Republican Sen. Bob Corker said the Senate Foreign Relations could take up the issue during the lame-duck session of Congress after the Nov. 8 election.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Congress apparently is experiencing a case of “buyers’ remorse.”
The Arab world reacted negatively to Congress’ action, the Associated Press reported, citing Twitter hashtags referring directly to the bill and #TheAmericanTerrorism. A widely shared photo montage of U.S. military actions in Japan and Vietnam, plus naked Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, surfaced with the caption: “Japan, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan can't wait for JASTA to be implemented so they can, in turn, prosecute the U.S.”
Some argued the congressional action just shows the United States is interested only in justice for U.S. terror victims, not all victims.
Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an Emirati Gulf specialist and professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University, warned the rest of the Arab world will stand behind Saudi Arabia, the AP reported.
Former Assistant Defense Secretary Chas Freeman warned Saudi Arabia could retaliate in ways that interfere with U.S. strategic interests, such as refusing overflight permission from Europe and Asia to the Qatari air base from where operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are orchestrated.
“The souring of relations and curtailing of official contacts that this legislation would inevitably produce could also jeopardize Saudi cooperation against anti-American terrorism,” he said.
The Saudis also could pull billions of dollars from the U.S. economy.