Top Armed Services Dem lobbies against 9/11 bill

Top Armed Services Dem lobbies against 9/11 bill
© Anne Wernikoff

The leading Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee on Sunday announced his opposition to a veto override once seen as a sure thing.

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“Taking this policy path will end up doing the United States more harm than good,” Rep. Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithStumbling plutonium pit project reveals DOE's uphill climb of nuclear modernization Congress should control its appetite for legacy programs when increasing defense budget House panel advances 8B defense bill MORE (D-Wash.) said in a dear colleague letter warning of the consequences of legislation that would allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia.

His opposition comes just days after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), circulated his own dear colleague urging members to resist the “temptation” to override the president’s veto.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would allow victims of terrorism to sue foreign governments that are not formally designated as sponsors of terrorism — like Saudi Arabia.

Critics of the legislation — like Thornberry and now Smith — are concerned that the bill would open up U.S. service members, diplomats and intelligence officials to retributive lawsuits by other nations that may enact similar legislation in response to JASTA.

“If other countries respond by adopting similar policies, it would not only threaten U.S. personnel with any number of foreign civil and criminal penalties, but also subject U.S. service members to the risks inherent in foreign trials and discovery processes, including requirements to risk disclosing sensitive information and testify under oath,” Smith wrote Sunday.

Supporters of the legislation say the bill is narrowly written to forestall those concerns.

The text of the legislation dictates that a foreign state is subject to U.S. litigation for any international act of terrorism in the U.S. or the wrongful act of any government official “while acting within the scope of his or her office.”

In other words, according to one group of victims' families lobbying for the bill, the immunity provision concerns only the immunity of foreign states and has nothing to do with the immunity of individual foreign officials or employees.  

"To the extent the issue is instead the potential that a foreign government might enact different laws that allow claims against U.S. personnel, it would not be reciprocating but rather engaging in a transparent and unjustifiable act of aggression, and the U.S. would be expected to respond by making clear the economic, diplomatic, social and military consequences of such aggression, as it would in any other case," they say.

The criticism receives limited attention in the president’s three-page veto statement, issued on Friday, and is largely addressed as part of a larger concern with undermining longstanding principles of sovereign immunity.

“Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments' actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel,” Obama wrote.

JASTA passed both the House and the Senate unanimously. The projected override was largely seen as a done deal up until this week, when cracks began to appear in support for the measure.

The White House has lobbied fiercely against the bill, and several top Democrats this week began to express reservations.

Republican and Democratic leaders say they are committed to holding the override vote, and the bill’s backers believe they have the support to force the bill into law.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (R-Ky.) said Friday that the upper chamber will remain in session until the veto override vote is done. The House override vote would then follow.

Although some high-profile Republicans have revealed concerns about the implications of the bill, Thornberry became the first to come out against a veto override.