9/11 bill is a global blunder that will weaken US efforts abroad
© Greg Nash

On Thursday, the U.S. Congress went over the head of President Obama for the first time, passing the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a piece of legislation effectively removing the principle of sovereign immunity to allow the families of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks to directly and privately sue the Saudi government for complicity with terrorists.

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While most of the hijackers were Saudi nationals, it is critically important that the across-the-aisle 9/11 commission found no evidence that the Saudi government or senior officials funded the attacks, or had any prior knowledge of it. Instead, the commission report lays much of the blame on a failure of U.S. intelligence and border security, citing the fact that al Qaeda gave plenty of notice of their intent to slaughter American civilians, but domestic defense forces devoted little attention or resources toward addressing the threat.

With the passage of the bill, the United States has provided the opportunity for grieving citizens to launch a legal battle against a false enemy, justifiably angering a nation that is not only a huge supplier of oil for the U.S, but has also served as a key ally in the war on terror.

Following the 15th anniversary of the attacks, JASTA was clearly directed at families of 9/11 victims. However, this bill has far-reaching consequences, opening the United States up to retaliatory legislation by foreign nations.

The principle of sovereign immunity, protecting a government from civil or criminal suit, has been maintained for so long by a notion of reciprocity — the United States protects itself from suit by in turn protecting other nations. The bill has taken a significant step towards erosion of this global status quo. If the U.S. will not protect the immunity of other nations, especially an ally such as Saudi Arabia, than there is no mechanism in place to prevent retaliatory measures.

In a town hall following the vote, Obama cited a number of concerns with the overriding of his veto. His primary fear seems to be an infringement on the ability of the United States to continue to carry out global disaster relief. Should U.S. forces become involved in the affairs of a foreign nation experiencing a state of emergency, any time a citizen is killed, even in non-combative fashion, the U.S. could be held liable. The president fears that, should other nations pass similar legislation, the U.S. could be forced to curb its humanitarian aid work out of legal necessity.

Obama also cited concern with the bill in relation to recently increasing acts of extremism carried out in the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Should a radicalized individual who is a citizen of another nation carry out an attack on U.S. soil, the victims could conceivably sue the attacker's home country, even if it had no involvement. This is a dangerous precedent to set, potentially legally implicating American allies without cause, and damaging U.S. relations abroad.

Following the override vote, House and Senate Republican leaders felt pangs of what the White House referred to as "rapid onset buyer's remorse." Speaker of the House Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanUSCIS chief Cuccinelli blames Paul Ryan for immigration inaction Soaring deficits could put Trump in a corner if there's a recession Paul Ryan moving family to Washington MORE (R-Wis.) said the House would take up a bill to fix problems with JASTA after it comes back from its election recess, admitting Obama's concerns that the bill could subject U.S. service members to lawsuits in foreign courts was legitimate.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' Pelosi asks Democrats for 'leverage' on impeachment Democrats press FBI, DHS on response to white supremacist violence MORE (R-Ky.) took to blaming Obama for Senate Republicans' misunderstanding or misreading of the law. "Nobody really had focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships. And I think it was just a ball dropped," he stated. McConnell then argued that Obama didn't make his concerns known early enough: "I hate to blame everything on him. And I don't. But it would have been helpful had we had a discussion about this much earlier than last week." Apparently a veto threat is not enough of an indication of opposition and concern.

An inherent difficulty of JASTA is that there isn’t an internationally agreed upon definition of what terrorism is. Because the U.S. is currently embroiled in action against al Qaeda, ISIS and other militant groups in nations around the world, a misdirected strike or civilian casualties could be treated by foreign governments as acts of terrorism. Without reciprocal immunity considerations, the United States could quickly find it defense personnel defending global security movements in foreign, inhospitable courts.

The passage of the bill was a mistake, one that will detrimentally impact American relations and movements abroad. Not only has the legislation angered key allies and made the U.S. an international laughingstock, but it will curtail American involvement in global humanitarian and security efforts. Governmental and military decisions have no place in the legal system, and by reducing security maneuvers to legal disputes, Congress has undermined American values, abilities and partnerships.

Grieboski is the chairman and CEO of Grieboski Global Strategies, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, and founder and secretary-general of the Interparliamentary Conference on Human Rights and Religious Freedom.


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