Kevin Lamarque / Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 20, 2016.

Congress' Mistake

How the 9/11 Bill Will Hurt U.S. Foreign Relations

In an exceedingly rare show of bipartisanship, on September 28, Congress enacted the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA). This act is popularly referred to as the 9/11 victims bill because it allows families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. district court to recover monetary damages. In practice, however, JASTA is not limited to victims of 9/11. Nor is it limited to any specific foreign state. It allows any U.S. citizen to sue a foreign state for damage caused by an act of international terrorism in the United States.

Congress passed JASTA over vigorous protest from the White House, foreign governments, business leaders, and the U.S. national security establishment. President Barack Obama warned that JASTA would expose U.S. military and intelligence personnel to lawsuits in foreign courts; weaken relationships with key allies; and reduce the effectiveness of U.S. government responses to terrorism. Calling it the “single most embarrassing thing Congress has done in decades,” Obama quickly vetoed the bill. However, for the first time in his administration, Congress overrode a veto, by 97–1 in the Senate and 348–77 in the House of Representatives.

Some members of Congress have already expressed early-onset remorse over JASTA, particularly after the override of Obama’s veto elicited a great degree of analysis over the bill’s potential to damage national security. Immediately following the override, 28 senators published a bipartisan letter to the bill’s sponsors stating a desire to “mitigate unintended consequences” for national security and foreign policy of the United States. The two top Republicans in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, separately said they were open to altering the legislation. Ryan has said that he would like to “protect our service members overseas” from any possible retaliation. McConnell said lawmakers were “very focused” on the needs of the 9/11 families and “didn’t take the time to think through . . . the potential downside in terms of our international relationships.” Frustratingly,

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