The legislative drama of the past few months has finally come to a head as Congress voted yesterday to overthrow President Obama’s veto and allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. This law will give the families of 9/11 victims their “day in court” and allow them to sue the Saudi government or Saudi officials who are proven to have aided the terrorist plot. While it is natural for these families to seek for justice and find someone to blame, this law could have many far-reaching consequences.
Most importantly, this law replaces a 1976 law that gives foreign governments (not individuals) sovereign immunity from U.S. lawsuits. The principle of sovereign immunity is an important norm of international law, and this law will set an unhealthy precedent for future interactions. It will leave the United States vulnerable in the event that private citizens from other countries wish to file a lawsuit against the United States. Because of the U.S.’s heavy overseas military involvement and international presence, we are particularly vulnerable to these types of lawsuits.
Additionally, this further complicates the American diplomatic process. Currently, foreign policy is complex as it is shaped by the White House, Congress, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the CIA (to name only a few). This legislation now gives private citizens dangerous influence on U.S. foreign policy. If the administration is trying to negotiate a peace agreement or a trade deal, civil lawsuits conducted against the foreign government simultaneously will vastly weaken our diplomatic posture. This has already begun, as Saudi Arabia has threatened to sell off “hundreds of billions of dollars of holdings in the U.S.” to avoid having their assets seized in a lawsuit.
Finally, independent investigations in both Saudi Arabia and the United States have concluded that there is “no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the [terrorist] organization.” So, even if U.S. families can sue Saudi Arabia, there is virtually no existing evidence that would allow them to win such a lawsuit. The United States has sacrificed its sovereign immunity for, essentially, nothing.
If there were so many issues with this agreement, how did it override Obama’s veto with a 97-to-1 vote in the Senate?
Politics at their finest. Though logic does not support this law, the emotional pleas of the victims of 9/11 families have convinced Congressmen to look the other way. While all feel sympathy at the tragic heartbreak of these victims’ families, the politicians in Washington knew that it would be bad publicity if they were seen voting against this law. Within hours after the passing of this law, thirty Senators signed a letter expressing unease about the consequences of this vote. Despite strong misgivings, all of these Senators still voted for the law.
And the one “against” vote? Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. A senator who, incidentally, is not running for re-election. Reid was in a position to vote for what was best for the country, and not what was best for his polls.
President Obama sums up the situation perfectly:
“I think [this vote] was a mistake, and I understand why it happened. It’s an example of why sometimes, you have to do what’s hard, and frankly, I wish Congress here had done what’s hard…if you’re perceived as voting against 9/11 families right before an election, not surprisingly, that’s a hard vote for people to take. But it would have been the right thing to do.”