Congress' controversial 9/11 bill could have lasting consequences for the US

Congress voted on Wednesday to override President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill that would allow the family members of September 11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia.

Some of Obama’s staunchest supporters in Congress came out against his veto, including Democratic New York Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

The White House slammed the Senate for overriding the president’s veto, calling the move the “most embarrassing thing” lawmakers have done since 1983.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA, has further increased tension between the White House and Congress, which passed the bill with ease and little debate from either side. Obama vetoed the bill on the grounds that it could alienate Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East. He also argued that it could expose other US entities to potential lawsuits.

What JASTA actually does

JASTA will give relatives of 9/11 victims the power to file civil suit against a “sovereign nation” in US federal court. Currently, civil suits filed against foreign nations are thrown out of federal court on the grounds that most foreign nations — with the exception of those that are classified as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department — are granted sovereign immunity, which gives them broad protection against lawsuits and claims made against them.

JASTA’s purpose, among other things, is to expand the list of exceptions outlined in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Specifically, it gives American citizens the power to file civil suits against “countries that knowingly or recklessly contribute material support or resources” to organisations who commit acts of terror on U.S. soil.

Critics claim that JASTA would make the United States vulnerable to prosecution from foreign nations over US military actions.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Washington Post that JASTA would likely have “a much larger impact” on the US government than Saudi Arabia, because the US takes rules “very seriously.” Further, Alterman said JASTA would leave government agencies open to “court-ordered discovery.”

The bill itself does not guarantee family members of 9/11 victims any certainty in the outcome of their lawsuits. It does, however, eliminate a major obstacle as far as opening the door to federal courts hearing cases filed against Saudi Arabia.

Supporters of JASTA have overwhelmingly cited the right of families of victims to seek justice as cause to override Obama’s veto.

“Overriding a presidential veto is something we don’t take lightly, but it was important in this case that the families of the victims of 9/11 be allowed to pursue justice, even if that pursuit causes some diplomatic discomforts,” Schumer said in a statement.

In light of Congress’s vote to override Obama’s veto, critics of the bill are deciding on how best to limit its influence once it becomes law.

Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told The Washington Post that the bill is essentially “exporting your foreign policy to trial lawyers.” He also highlighted the possibility of the United States being sued by other nations for its drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or even for its strong support of Israel.

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