Is President Obama promising to veto a bill over fears that it could make U.S. officials the subject of lawsuits over drone strikes and other deadly acts during its War on Terror?
The pending legislation in question is the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), authored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), which would amend the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) and the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA). It would enable victims of 9/11 and other attacks on U.S. soil to sue nations, including Saudi Arabia, if the are found to have been involved or supplied material support for terrorism. Democratic presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders declared their support for the legislation just ahead of the New York presidential primary.
Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia Wednesday for a short visit, where, according to CNN, he "received a chilly reception from Saudi Arabia's leaders," and where, as the Guardian reported, he may "face some potentially awkward questions from his hosts—not least over a push by some of his political allies" to pass the bill. The White House, however, has already signaled Obama would veto the measure.
As for why, Obama told CBS News on Monday, "This is a matter of how generally the United States approaches our interactions with other countries. If we open up the possibility that individuals and the United States can routinely start suing other governments, then we are also opening up the United States to being continually sued by individuals in other countries."
Secretary of State John Kerry said nearly the same in February, telling a senate panel that the bill would "expose the United States of America to lawsuits and take away our sovereign immunity and create a terrible precedent."
Mark Joseph Stern wrote at Slate that such retaliation could take the form of "lawsuits against American service members, diplomats, and government officials in their own courts." He further noted: "A primary justification for foreign sovereign immunity is comity: America doesn't judge foreign countries' internal decisions; in return, other countries don't judge America's."
The Sacramento Bee's editorial board wrote Tuesday that the legislation "might allow foreign citizens to sue, for instance, over drone strikes that the president has made a key part of his fight against terror."
Obama's opposition to the legislation met backlash from families of 9/11 victims, who wrote in a letter sent to Monday to Obama, "Your place in history should not be marked by a campaign to foreclose the judicial process as a venue in which the truth can be found."
While the New York Times reported Friday that Saudi officials have "told the Obama administration and members of Congress that it will sell off hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of American assets held by the kingdom" if Congress passes the bill, White House spokesman Josh Earnest dismissed that threat, telling reporters Monday, "I'm confident that the Saudis recognize, just as much as we do, our shared interest in preserving the stability of the global financial system."
Still, the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel, a veteran of the CIA for 30 years, told the Guardian, "If members of the Saudi government are taken to court, there will be retaliation from the kingdom."
Despite what the Associated Press described as "increasingly strained relations" between the U.S. and the Saudis, arms deals to the kingdom are flourishing.
"Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of American military hardware and services, and those sales have expanded under Obama, with more than $100 billion in sales approved by 2015," TIME magazine reported Tuesday.
Human rights groups have charged that the U.S. has "facilitated appalling crimes" by supplying the kingdom with weapons used for "unlawful airstrikes" during its bombing campaign of Yemen, and the Times also described the war as "a humanitarian disaster" that has "fueled a resurgence of Al Qaeda in Yemen."
As William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, wrote at the Times Wednesday, "The Saudi-American arms deals are a continuation of a booming business that has developed between Washington and Riyadh during the Obama years. In the first six years of the Obama administration, the United States entered into agreements to transfer nearly $50 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, with tens of billions of dollars of additional offers in the pipeline."
The U.S. ally is also under scrutiny for its record high number of executions this year.