It took nearly eight years for Congress to override a veto by President Obama. It could hardly have chosen a worse measure on which to do so — or a more stark way of exposing its most craven impulses.
The overwhelming bipartisan vote in both the Senate and House on Wednesday came four months before President Obama leaves office. The White House issued an unusually scathing response. “I would venture to say that this is the single most embarrassing thing that the U.S. Senate has done, possibly, since 1983,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. Strong words.
President Obama was right to reject the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which would allow U.S. citizens to sue foreign nations for abetting terrorist acts, even if they are not included on the State Department’s official list of sponsor states.
While the law names no names, it is obviously intended to allow the families of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement.
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The problem is that law clearly violates the principle of sovereign immunity, which bars people from using their nation’s court system to sue a foreign government. If sovereign immunity is weakened, no country is more vulnerable than the United States. In his veto message last week, President Obama warned that the law undermines “longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
In addition, in cases brought by U.S. citizens, defense lawyers could potentially force Washington to release sensitive or even classified information.
Saudi Arabia could also respond by canceling contracts with U.S. businesses and urging its Gulf Arab neighbors to reassess their cooperation with Washington on counterterrorism.
It’s not as if the Senate, which voted 97-1 to approve the override, was unaware of these concerns.
Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he had “tremendous concerns” about the law, while Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein confessed that the law is “the wrong thing to do.” Both of these senators, to repeat, voted in support of the legislation. All elected officials have made votes they regret, but rarely do they express their regrets on the same day as the vote.
Now 28 senators of both parties have issued a letter saying they hope to mitigate any negative consequences of the bill.
Some cautious legislators had already added a provision allowing the administration to stay any suit so long as it is engaged in “good-faith discussions” with the foreign state. There was talk of limiting the law’s application solely to the Sept. 11 attacks or to Saudi Arabia. Neither of these ameliorate the fact Congress has undermined a fundamental tenet of international law.
The only way to ensure U.S. soldiers, spies and diplomats remain protected is for Congress to repeal this measure it never should have passed. Doing so may upset the Sept. 11 families, many of whom say they don’t want money, but justice.
Congress can better address their concerns by creating a new investigatory body, along the lines of the 9/11 Commission, to look into the narrower question of Saudi connections to the attackers.
That would be far more helpful to the victims than making the United States a legal target for its enemies around the globe.
This editorial first appeared in Bloomberg View.