What is JASTA?
JASTA, the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terror Act,” is a bill that allows U.S. nationals to bring suit against foreign governments in U.S. courts for their involvement in acts of terror. The law was primarily designed to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia, which was the home of Osama Bin-Laden and has ties to Al-Qaeda. The bill was widely condemned by legal and foreign affairs experts. However, it passed through Congress last month, but was vetoed by President Obama. Congress, spurred largely by the optics of being “soft on terror” or dismissive of survivors, then overrode his veto by a vote of 97-1, and the bill became law.
What’s the problem with prosecuting Saudi Arabia for 9/11?
JASTA violates a long-standing facet of international law that grants foreign governments immunity in national courts. There are certain exceptions, but prior to the passage of JASTA, it was largely impossible for a person to sue a foreign government in the courts of their home nation. JASTA violates this compact, and as a result incentivizes other foreign governments to reciprocate by removing the U.S.’s immunity in their own courts. This would expose the U.S. to legal action abroad, which is especially concerning because the U.S. is heavily involved in foreign activities, both through aid and military intervention. JASTA adds a whole new component of risk to providing foreign aid or training foreign police forces.
Moreover, the law is extremely broad, and if other countries reciprocate, the U.S. could be liable for things as simple as U.S. arms winding up in the hands of militants, or illegal actions carried out by U.S.-trained soldiers. Finally, many fear the broad and ambiguous nature law would jeopardize relations even with our close allies. For instance, the British government would be on the hook for an ISIS fighter who travels to Britain to be radicalized and then carries out a mass shooting in the United States.
The cat is already out of the bag. Despite Obama’s veto, the bill passed through Congress and is currently law. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), among others, expressed regret after the bill’s passage and stated he would like to amend or repeal the law in the future. But despite overwhelming support for the Act, many congressional Republicans blamed the Obama Administration for the bill’s passage, claiming the President did not do enough to inform them that the bill was a bad idea. It is likely that the law will eventually be amended or repealed, but such a move will have to wait until the Congress returns from recess. Even then, it is not clear if there is enough support in the House and Senate to alter the law.