CATF Reports Sep. 30, 2016, 1:12pm

Just yesterday, Congress overwhelmingly overrode President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in a Senate vote of 97 to 1 and a House vote of 378 to 77. Now turned into law, JASTA allows families of the 9/11 victims to take legal action against Saudi Arabia government members over their suspected role in the attacks. This particular issue has been controversial for years, especially due to the strength of U.S.-Saudi relations which has made the US hesitant to push anything that could threaten these ties. More recently, renewed interest in the issue was sparked by the release of the formerly classified 28 page document that exposed the connections between al Qaeda funding, the 9/11 hijackers - who were predominantly of Saudi origin - and prominent Saudi citizens and government members.  

Although the bill allows civil claims against a sovereign nation or a state official for knowingly contributing support to persons or organizations that carried out acts of terrorism on U.S. soil, the fact that nations have sovereign immunity weakens these claims. Moreover, the bill does not allow an American court to seize Saudi or any foreign sovereign’s assets. Many analysts believe the bill’s value is more symbolic than substantial. Those opposed to the bill fear that this legislation sets a precedent for other countries, making the U.S. vulnerable to lawsuits for their overseas involvement with actions such as drone strikes. John B. Bellinger III, former State Department legal adviser and current partner at Arnold and Porter explains, “When we ourselves begin to chip away at sovereign immunity [.?.?.] it does encourage other countries to chip away at sovereign immunity.”

In addition, the passing of such a controversial bill may have repercussions on the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The oil rich Kingdom has already threatened to sell off nearly a trillion dollars in treasury securities and other assets from the U.S. economy as retaliation. Although several economists claim such a threat is unlikely to come to fruition, considering it would be more damaging to Saudi economy than the U.S. with the declining oil prices, the Kingdom has been a key strategic ally in the region. Angering it could strain a crucial diplomatic relationship for the U.S., especially with Saudi Arabia’s role in securing GCC allies’ cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, investments, and U.S. access to important regional air bases. Although this means justice and closure for 9/11 victims, it does come at a cost.


From S.2040 - Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act:

“This bill amends 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 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. Additionally, the bill authorizes federal courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over and impose liability on a person who commits, or aids, abets, or conspires to commit, an act of international terrorism against a U.S. national.

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