Last week a major bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously after passing in the Senate earlier this year. This is noteworthy in this polarized and partisan age. Even more striking, however, is just how unwise of a bill it is.
Dubbed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act – it appears to be a rule that every bill that passes in Congress must mention either children or terrorism in the title – this bill would, according to its summary on the U.S. House website, “amend the federal judicial code to narrow the scope of foreign sovereign immunity by authorizing U.S. courts to hear cases involving claims against a foreign state for injuries, death or damages that occur inside the United States as a result of a tort, including an act of terrorism, committed anywhere by a foreign state or official. It [also] amends the federal criminal code to permit civil claims against a foreign state or official for injuries, death or damages from an act of international terrorism.”
Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong. What this bill will do is allow American citizens to sue sovereign nations for wrongful death in an American civil court and for a broad range of actions. Theoretically, if a Colombian terrorist stole dynamite from a Colombian army base and used it in a terror attack in the United States, Columbia as a nation could be sued in civil court by the relatives of the victims and required to pay damages.
Likewise, this bill would expose American diplomats and military personnel overseas open to being hauled in front of a foreign court while on government business, a point illustrated in an open letter released this week by a bipartisan group of national security experts:
“If JASTA is allowed to become law, it will completely undercut sovereign immunity protections upon which the United States and all sovereign nations have relied for centuries, and our troops, our diplomats and all U.S. government personnel working overseas could very well find themselves subject to lawsuits in other countries.”
The letter, whose signers included a former Secretary of Defense, a former CIA director and a former U.S. Attorney General went on to say that “the safety and security of our diplomats, intelligence offices, military and other senior officials of the U.S. Government, and their ability to perform their duties without foreign influence or intervention would be seriously imperiled by a process intent on denying them the international immunities that have been accepted by all civilized nations since the 16th century and earlier.”
Of course the fact that this bill would undercut a rule of international politics dating back to the 1500s and has the potential to gravely endanger American lives is not something with which Congress has shown much concern. The bill is being sponsored by Rep. Peter King of New York. King, a man who is perhaps best known for writing a series of action thriller novels which star an elderly New York Congressman who bears a passing resemblance to one Peter King as the protagonist and hero – seriously, look it up – decided to up the ante from doing nothing to doing something antagonistic to American national interests.
While the bill makes no mention of the 9/11 attacks, the practical outcome of it passing in the short term is that a long-awaited civil lawsuit against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would finally be able to proceed in federal court. Rep. King would be hailed as some sort of hero, at least by the fine lawyers of his New York City district. Most likely, some of the money from a successful lawsuit would find its way into the coffers of this great national hero. All of the members of Congress get to run ads discussing how tough on terror they are, and how they pursued justice for the 9/11 attack victims or something along those lines.
Of course in reality, they have done nothing. No sacrifices have been asked of the American people, and no budget goodies have been cut from any lawmaker’s district. The bill was passed by voice vote, so if things go south, not a single lawmaker will be on the record for having contributed to a negative situation. In all respects, if you are a member of Congress or a trial lawyer wanting to pursue a lawsuit against one of the wealthiest nations on Earth in an American court, this is a win.
However, if you are a fan of justice or logic, it’s another story. Suing Saudi Arabia would not be justice because while yes, the majority of the 9/11 terrorists were Saudis, and yes, money from Saudi citizens has helped fund Al- Qaeda for years, there is no indication that the Saudi government had any involvement in the attack. The only real winners here are plaintiff lawyers.
If America stops narrowing the sovereign immunities of other sovereign nations, it is only logical that they do the same right back to the United States, which would open up the United States to all sorts of lawsuits from citizens of other countries. America kills foreign nationals routinely, directly and indirectly. Whether through drone strikes in Pakistan, weapons sales in South America or boat crashes in the Pacific Ocean, people die as a result of American actions. Since America is a sovereign nation, it cannot be held liable for death in the civil court system of any other nation. Since America wants to change that for another nation, other nations may look to change that for America. Imagine the amount of wrongful death lawsuits that could be brought against the United States for civilian casualties due to drone strikes alone.
This act of Congress is a poor decision. It promotes neither justice nor reconciliation and will not act to deter terrorism. President Obama has made known that he will veto this bill when it comes to his desk, and that is a veto with which I can agree.