Despite opposition from Saudi Arabia and the European Union, despite opinion pieces published by major outlets like CNN and the Atlantic urging President Obama to veto a bill allowing 9/11 victims’ families to sue the Saudi government, which he did last week, Congress voted overwhelmingly today to override the president’s veto for the first time since he’s been in office.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest was quick to call Wednesday’s Senate vote to override the president’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) “the single most embarrassing thing the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983.” This was just as quickly disputed by reporters at the Intercept, who came up with a list of rival embarrassments. President Obama himself, meanwhile, took a more cautious approach, saying he thought the veto override was “a mistake” but also saying he does “understand why it happened.”
Obama repeated a familiar argument against the bill, saying it would set a precedent allowing people in other countries to sue U.S. military and government personnel for their actions abroad.
“The problem with that is that if we eliminate this notion of sovereign immunity, then our men and women in uniform around the world could potentially start seeing ourselves subject to reciprocal loss, right?” the president reportedly said.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) argued that the bill was misguided — before voting in favor of the veto override anyway. By passing the bill “what you really do is you end up exporting your foreign policy to trial lawyers,” Corker told the Washington Post, adding that it could lead to U.S. personnel facing foreign lawsuits over drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or over issues such as U.S. support for Israel.
Others disagree with this assessment, however. “You don’t see Syrian citizens rushing to the courtroom,” Notre Dame University law professor and JASTA supporter Jimmy Gurule told U.S. News and World Report. “My view is these arguments — of retaliation, reciprocity and legal chaos — are really an attempt to conceal the real reason for the White House opposition to JASTA, and that is simply that the United States feels this legislation would strain relations with Saudi Arabia.”
Meanwhile John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said he found it “hard to believe” that so many senators would vote to override the veto given their alleged understanding of the alleged national security impact of the bill. The vote was 97-1 in the Senate, with Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) the only vote against the override, and 348-77 in the House.
Brennan said Congress was going down “a very, very dangerous slippery slope” in overriding the president’s veto. “Foreign governments are going to start to pass similar types of legislation that is going to haul the United States into court overseas, even for the most frivolous of charges and allegations for what the U.S. — the United States — has done overseas,” Brennan reportedly said.
Brennan’s complaints about the bill further included that it had “grave implications” not only for national security, but specifically for his agency. He again stressed the importance of sovereign immunity. “If we fail to uphold this standard for other countries,” Brennan reportedly said, “we place our own nation’s officials in danger. No country has more to lose from undermining that principle than the United States — and few institutions would be at greater risk than CIA.”
It may be true that some US institutions, including the CIA, may face consequences for their past actions as a consequence of JASTA’s passage. Instead of opposing justice for the families of the victims of the September 11th attacks, however, Brennan might be wiser to take a different approach to keeping his agents out of foreign courtrooms. An obvious place to start might be bringing the agency’s activities closer to something resembling compliance with international laws and norms. Given how unrealistic it is that this would happen, though, it’s not so surprising to hear Brennan making an impassioned argument against an overwhelmingly popular piece of legislation.
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