As a previous post reported, from September 16, 2015, through September 9, 2016, the current Session of Congress considered and overwhelmingly adopted the Justice Against Terrorism Act (JASTA). Although neither chamber of Congress held hearings on JASTA this Session and voiced little opposition to the bill, objections to the bill were raised outside Congress, and on September 23, 2016, President Obama vetoed the bill, as was mentioned in a prior post. Thereafter Congress overrode the veto and JASTA became law, whose details were discussed in another previous post.
Now we will retreat in time and examine the president’s veto message and the congressional overriding of the veto. Another post will look at subsequent efforts to amend JASTA.
President Obama’s Veto Message
On September 23, President Obama vetoed JASTA and returned the bill to Congress with a message stating the following reasons for the veto:
- “Enacting JASTA into law . . . would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks. As drafted, JASTA would allow private litigation against foreign governments in U.S. courts based on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad made them responsible for terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil. This legislation would permit litigation against countries that have neither been designated by the executive branch as state sponsors of terrorism nor taken direct actions in the United States to carry out an attack here. The JASTA would be detrimental to U.S. national interests more broadly, which is why I am returning it without my approval.”
- “First, JASTA threatens to reduce the effectiveness of our response to indications that a foreign government has taken steps outside our borders to provide support for terrorism, by taking such matters out of the hands of national security and foreign policy professionals and placing them in the hands of private litigants and courts.”
- “Any indication that a foreign government played a role in a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is a matter of deep concern and merits a forceful, unified Federal Government response that considers the wide range of important and effective tools available. One of these tools is designating the foreign government in question as a state sponsor of terrorism, which carries with it a litany of repercussions, including the foreign government being stripped of its sovereign immunity before U.S. courts in certain terrorism-related cases and subjected to a range of sanctions. Given these serious consequences, state sponsor of terrorism designations are made only after national security, foreign policy, and intelligence professionals carefully review all available information to determine whether a country meets the criteria that the Congress established.”
- “In contrast, JASTA departs from longstanding standards and practice under our Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act and threatens to strip all foreign governments of immunity from judicial process in the United States based solely upon allegations by private litigants that a foreign government’s overseas conduct had some role or connection to a group or person that carried out a terrorist attack inside the United States. This would invite consequential decisions to be made based upon incomplete information and risk having different courts reaching different conclusions about the culpability of individual foreign governments and their role in terrorist activities directed against the United States — which is neither an effective nor a coordinated way for us to respond to indications that a foreign government might have been behind a terrorist attack.”
- “Second, JASTA would upset longstanding international principles regarding sovereign immunity, putting in place rules that, if applied globally, could have serious implications for U.S. national interests. The United States has a larger international presence, by far, than any other country, and sovereign immunity principles protect our Nation and its Armed Forces, officials, and assistance professionals, from foreign court proceedings. These principles also protect U.S. Government assets from attempted seizure by private litigants abroad. Removing sovereign immunity in U.S. courts from foreign governments that are not designated as state sponsors of terrorism, based solely on allegations that such foreign governments’ actions abroad had a connection to terrorism-related injuries on U.S. soil, threatens to undermine these longstanding principles that protect the United States, our forces, and our personnel.”
- “Indeed, reciprocity plays a substantial role in foreign relations, and numerous other countries already have laws that allow for the adjustment of a foreign state’s immunities based on the treatment their governments receive in the courts of the other state. Enactment of JASTA could encourage foreign governments to act reciprocally and allow their domestic courts to exercise jurisdiction over the United States or U.S. officials — including our men and women in uniform — for allegedly causing injuries overseas via U.S. support to third parties. This could lead to suits against the United States or U.S. officials for actions taken by members of an armed group that received U.S. assistance, misuse of U.S. military equipment by foreign forces, or abuses committed by police units that received U.S. training, even if the allegations at issue ultimately would be without merit. And if any of these litigants were to win judgments — based on foreign domestic laws as applied by foreign courts — they would begin to look to the assets of the U.S. Government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States.”
- “Third, JASTA threatens to create complications in our relationships with even our closest partners. If JASTA were enacted, courts could potentially consider even minimal allegations accusing U.S. allies or partners of complicity in a particular terrorist attack in the United States to be sufficient to open the door to litigation and wide-ranging discovery against a foreign country — for example, the country where an individual who later committed a terrorist act traveled from or became radicalized. A number of our allies and partners have already contacted us with serious concerns about the bill. By exposing these allies and partners to this sort of litigation in U.S. courts, JASTA threatens to limit their cooperation on key national security issues, including counterterrorism initiatives, at a crucial time when we are trying to build coalitions, not create divisions.”
- “The 9/11 attacks were the worst act of terrorism on U.S. soil, and they were met with an unprecedented U.S. Government response. The United States has taken robust and wide-ranging actions to provide justice for the victims of the 9/11 attacks and keep Americans safe, from providing financial compensation for victims and their families to conducting worldwide counterterrorism programs to bringing criminal charges against culpable individuals. I have continued and expanded upon these efforts, both to help victims of terrorism gain justice for the loss and suffering of their loved ones and to protect the United States from future attacks. The JASTA, however, does not contribute to these goals, does not enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests.”
Reactions to the Veto
Immediately after President Obama’s veto of JASTA, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress vowed to override the veto under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution requiring a vote of at least two-thirds of each chamber of the Congress to do so. On the sidelines both major presidential candidates (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) said that they would have signed the bill if they were president.
These vows were made despite the prior day’s testimony before a Senate committee by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter opposing the bill on the ground that it could be a problem for the U.S. if another country was “to behave reciprocally towards the U.S.” And the Republican Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, amplified the military’s concerns and urged Republicans to study the bill’s consequences while announcing his intent to opposes the override.
Not surprisingly immediately after this veto, Senator John Cornyn stated, “It’s disappointing the President chose to veto legislation unanimously passed by Congress and overwhelmingly supported by the American people. Even more disappointing is the President’s refusal to listen to the families of the victims taken from us on September 11th, who should have the chance to hold those behind the deadliest terrorist attack in American history accountable. I look forward to the opportunity for Congress to override the President’s veto, provide these families with the chance to seek the justice they deserve, and send a clear message that we will not tolerate those who finance terrorism in the United States.”
On September 27 President Obama sent a letter to Senators Mitch McConnell (Rep., TN), the Majority Leader, and Harry Reid (Dem. NV), Minority Leader. The President said he was “fully committed to assisting the families of the victims of terrorist attacks of Sept. 11,″ but that the consequences of an override could be “devastating” by putting military and other U.S. officials overseas at risk. The bill’s enactment, he warned, “would neither protect Americans from terrorist attacks nor improve the effectiveness of our response to such attacks.
On September 28 Senators Cornyn and Shumer jointly wrote an op-ed article in USA Today urging Congress to override the veto because JASTA “would provide a legal avenue for the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks to seek justice in a court of law for the terrorist attacks that took the lives of their loved ones. And it would deter foreign entities from sponsoring terrorism in the future.” The article also rejected as untrue the argument by JASTA’s opponents “that the bill will subject U.S. diplomats and other government officials to a raft of potential lawsuits in foreign courts.”
On the morning of September 28, the New York Times published an editorial opposing the threatened congressional override of the veto because “the bill complicates the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia and could expose the American government, citizens and corporations to lawsuits abroad. Moreover, legal experts like Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law and Jack Goldsmith of Harvard Law School doubt that the legislation would actually achieve its goal.”
Moreover, the Times editorial asserted that the “European Union has warned that if the bill becomes law, other countries could adopt similar legislation defining their own exemptions to sovereign immunity. Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.”
Nevertheless, later that same day (September 28) Congress overwhelmingly voted to override the presidential veto. The only vote against the override in the Senate was by the Senate Minority Leader, Senator Harry Reid (Dem., NV). The vote in the House was 348 to override with only 59 opposed. We will now look at the debate in both chambers.
U.S. Senate’s Overriding the Veto
In the Senate debate, Senators Richard Blumenthal (Dem., CT), John Cornyn (Rep., TX), Chuck Grassley (Rep., IA) and Chuck Schumer (Dem. NY) spoke in favor of overriding the veto and passing JASTA while Senators Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), the Committee’s Ranking Member, and Diane Feinstein (Dem., CA) offered qualified endorsements of an override. 
Generally these Senators argued that U.S. victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism needed the opportunity to assert their damage claims in U.S. courts against such sponsors and that JASTA would deter such sponsored terrorism. Senator Cornyn added that this “legislation has been pending since 2009, and we have worked through a number of Members’ concerns . . . in order to modify the legislation and build the consensus we now have achieved. . . . That means [JASTA] has been negotiated and hammered out over a long period of time.”
Cornyn then offered this argument for rejection of the presidential veto message:
- JASTA would not “create complications” with some of our close partners. It “only targets foreign governments that sponsor terrorist attacks on American soil. . . . The financing of terrorism in the [U.S.] is not behavior we should tolerate from any nation, allies included.”
- Possible foreign laws like JASTA “applied reciprocally will open no . . . floodgates” of lawsuits against the U.S. or military members by foreign governments in foreign courts.
- “JASTA is not a sweeping legislative overhaul that dramatically alters international law. It is an extension of law that has been on the [U.S.] books since 1976. . . . [For] 40 years our law has been replete with immunity exceptions that apply to conduct committed abroad. This bill just adds another exception.”
Senator Grassley, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, noted that this Committee unanimously supported overriding the veto of JASTA. He also said it was “highly unlikely” that passage of the bill would result in “the Saudis . . .pulling their money out of U.S. securities. . . . But even if they did, there would be plenty of buyers for those securities. But more importantly, . . . [such an argument would send the message;] if you want to influence U.S. legislation, make sure to buy up U.S. debt, and then threaten to sell that debt any time the U.S. Congress does something you don’t like. We absolutely cannot be intimidated or bend to that type of threat.”
Senator Corker commented that he had “tremendous concerns about the sovereign immunity procedures that could be set in place by other countries as a result of this vote” and that it could have adverse consequences for the U.S. “standing in the world.” He was troubled by “the concerns [of] . . . the head of our Joint Chiefs” and of the President. He also thought it would be better “to establish some type of tribunal, where experts could come in and really identify what actually happened on discretionary decisions that took place within the country of Saudi Arabia” with respect to the pending 9/11 claims.
As a result, Senator Corker prepared a bipartisan letter to the Senate sponsors of JASTA (Senators Cornyn and Schumer). It expressed concern about “potential unintended consequences that may result from . . . [JASTA] for the national security and foreign policy of the United States. If other nations respond to this bill by weakening U.S. sovereign immunity protections, then the [U.S.] could face private lawsuits in foreign courts as a result of important military or intelligence activities. We would hope to work with you in a constructive manner to appropriately mitigate those unintended consequences.”
One of the signers of this letter and the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., DE), recognized “that there are risk factors in terms of how other countries may respond to the enactment of JASTA.  As a nation with hundreds of thousands of troops that serve abroad, not to mention multiple foreign bases and facilities, the United States of America is a country that benefits from sovereign immunity principles that protect our country and our country’s interests, its Armed Forces, government officials, and litigation in foreign courts. Therefore, there is a concern of unintended consequences, including irresponsible applications to U.S. international activities by other countries. While I have faith and confidence in the American legal system, the same faith does not necessarily extend to the fairness of legal systems of other countries that may claim they are taking similar actions against America when they are not. So [as the Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I will] follow closely how other countries respond and try to mitigate the risks of the [U.S.] abroad” and will “explore with my colleagues the possibility of whether we need or will need additional legislative action.”
Another signer of the letter, Senator Feinstein, expressed her “key concern relates to the exception to the immunity of foreign governments.” “Proponents of this bill argue that the exception is narrow, that it applies only if a foreign nation, with ill intent, takes unlawful actions that cause an act of terrorism on our soil. But other nations that are strongly opposed to American actions abroad could respond by using the bill as an excuse to adopt laws that target our own government’s actions. A September 15 Washington Post editorial said it well: ‘It is not a far-fetched concern, given this country’s global use of intelligence agents, Special Operations forces and drones, all of which could be construed as state-sponsored `terrorism’ when convenient.’ Those of us on the Senate Intelligence Committee know that, if other countries respond to JASTA in this manner, it could jeopardize our government’s actions abroad. If that happens, it is likely that our government would be forced to defend against private lawsuits, which could pose a threat to our national security.” Therefore, she was interested in limiting JASTA to “the September 11 attacks” and to “those directly impacted by an attack–including individuals, their estates and property damage, rather than companies with only tangential connections.”
U.S. House of Representatives’ Overriding the Veto
On the afternoon of September 28 the House voted to override the veto of JASTA by a vote of 348 (225 Republicans and 123 Democrats) to 77 (18 Republicans and 59 Democrats).
The supporters of override were led by Representative Robert Goodlatte (Rep., VA), the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, who asserted, “The changes JASTA makes to existing law are not dramatic, nor are they sweeping.. . .The President’s objections . . . have no basis under U.S. or international law.. . . Consistent with customary international law, JASTA, for terrorism cases, removes the current requirement that the entire tort occur within the United States and replaces it with a rule that only the physical injury or death must occur on U.S. soil.” Later in the debate he claimed (erroneously as explained in n.14) that his argument was supported by “Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Their Properties [which] would apply the territorial tort exception if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of the state exercising jurisdiction.”
Others who supported the override and who spoke during the debate were Representatives Peter King (Rep., NY), Sheila Jackson Lee (Dem., TX), Leonard Lance (Rep., NJ), David Donovan (Rep., NY), Carolyn Maloney (Dem., NY) and Jerrold Nadler (Dem. FL).
Leading the opposition to the override were Representative M. “Mac” Thornberry (Rep., TX), the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, and Representative John Conyers (Dem., MI). Other opponents of override who spoke during the debate were Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (Dem., TX), David Jolly (Rep., FL), Betty McCollum (Dem., MN), Robert Scott (Dem., VA) and Earl Blumenauer (Dem., NY).
Thornberry expressed concern for the possible erosion of sovereign immunity, which is “one of the key protections that the military, diplomats, and intelligence community of the [U.S.] has around the world. Once that doctrine gets eroded, then there is less protection, and . . . the [U.S.], has more at stake in having our people protected than any other country because we have more people around the world than anyone else.” Thornberry also quoted from a letter to him from Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., General, U.S. Marine Corps. and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: `Any legislation that risks reciprocal treatment by foreign governments would increase the vulnerability of U.S. Service members to foreign legal action while acting in an official capacity.” This letter and a letter urging defeat of the override from Secretary of Defense Ash Carter were inserted into the House record.
Conyers supported the President’s reasons for his veto. “First, the President stated that [the bill] could undermine the effectiveness of our Nation’s national security and counterterrorism efforts. For instance, other nations may become more reluctant to share sensitive intelligence in light of the greater risk that such information may be revealed in litigation. Moreover, the President raised the concern that this legislation would effectively allow non-expert private litigants and courts, rather than national security and foreign policy experts, to determine key foreign and national security policy questions like which states are sponsors of terrorism. Second, the President’s assertion that enactment of[the bill]may lead to retaliation by other countries against the [U.S.] given the breadth of our interests and the expansive reach of our global activities. So while it seems likely at this juncture that [the bill] will be enacted over the President’s veto, I remain hopeful that we can continue to work toward the enactment of subsequent legislation to address the President’s concerns.”
Conyers also cited others who called for sustaining the President’s veto: Michael Mukasey, the former Attorney General under George W. Bush; Stephen Hadley, the former National Security Adviser for that President; Richard Clarke, the former White House counterterrorism adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; and Thomas Pickering, the former [U.S.] Ambassador to the United Nations.
Representative Scott said, “JASTA abrogates a core principle in international law–foreign sovereign immunity. There are already several exceptions to this immunity recognized by our Nation and others, but JASTA goes much further than any present exception or recognized practice of any national law…. One fundamental indication of fairness of legislation is not how it would work to our benefit, but what we would think if it were used against us. If the [U.S.] decides to allow our citizens to haul foreign nations into American courts, what would we think of other nations enacting legislation allowing their citizens to do the same thing to us? Obviously, we would not want to put our diplomats, military, and private companies at that risk.”
Scott also pointed out that “JASTA does not make clear how the evidence would be gathered to help build a credible case against a foreign nation. Would the plaintiffs be able to subpoena foreign officials? Or would the U.S. Department of State officials have to testify? Would . . . [the U.S.] be required to expose sensitive materials in order to help American citizens prove their case? Again, how would we feel about foreign judges and juries deciding whether or not the [U.S.] sponsored terrorism? There are also questions about how the judgment under JASTA would be enforced. The legislation does not address how a court would enforce the judgment. Could foreign assets be attached? How would this process work if other countries enacted similar legislation? Would U.S. assets all over the world be subject to attachment to satisfy the foreign jury verdicts?”
Jolly emphasized that “the President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA Director, and the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee [Representative Thornberry] have all issued statements against this legislation.”
White House Reaction to the Overriding of the Veto
On the same day as this Senate vote and before the House voted on the same bill later that day, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, said, “I would venture to say that this is the single-most embarrassing thing that the United States Senate has done possibly since 1983. You had at least one prominent Republican senator quoted today saying that . . . the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were not quite sure what the bill actually did. And to have members of the United States Senate only recently informed of the negative impact of this bill on our service members and our diplomats is, in itself, embarrassing. For those senators then to move forward in overriding the President’s veto that would prevent those negative consequences is an abdication of their basic responsibilities as elected representatives of the American people.”
Furthermore, said the Press Secretary, “these senators are going to have to answer their own conscience and their constituents as they account for their actions today. You’ve got to give some credit to Harry Reid. He showed some courage. The same can’t be said for the other 96 members of the Senate who voted today.”
The same day President Obama on CNN said that a few lawmakers who backed the bill weren’t aware of its potential impact and that he wished Congress “had done what’s hard.” CIA Director John Brennan said he was concerned about how Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, would interpret the bill. He said the Saudis provide significant amounts of information to the U.S. to help foil extremist plots. “It would be an absolute shame if this legislation, in any way, influenced the Saudi willingness to continue to be among our best counterterrorism partners,” Brennan said.
On September 29, after the House had voted and JASTA became law, Press Secretary Earnest added, “I think what we’ve seen in the United States Congress is a pretty classic case of rapid-onset buyer’s remorse. Within minutes of casting their vote to put that bill into law, you had members of the United States Senate — some 28 of them — write a letter expressing deep concern about the potential impact of the bill they just passed. The suggestion on the part of some members of the Senate was that they didn’t know what they were voting for, that they didn’t understand the negative consequences of the bill. That’s a hard suggestion to take seriously when you had letters from President Bush’s attorney general and national security advisor warning about the consequences of the bill. You had attorneys from our closest allies in Europe expressing their concerns about the impact of the bill. You had a letter from some of America’s business leaders, including Chief Executive of GE, Jeffrey Immelt, warning about the potential economic consequences of the bill. You had letters from the Director of the CIA, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense and the Commander-in-Chief all warning about the potential impact of the bill.”
As indicated above, certain Senators indicated their intent to pursue amendments to JASTA to remedy what they see as problems with the statute. This will be the subject of future posts.
 White House, Veto Message from the President—S.2040 (Sept. 23, 2016) Afterwards Josh Earnest, the White House Press Secretary, discussed whether there was congressional opposition to overriding the veto and criticism of the bill from Saudi Arabia and “a lot of other countries, including the European Union. White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/26/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 9/27/16.
 Assoc. Press, Lawmakers Vow to Override Obama’s Veto of Sept. 11 bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2016).
 Steinhauer, Mazzetti & Davis, Congress Votes to Override Obama Veto on 9/11 Victims Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Eilpirin & Demirjian, Congress thwarts Obama on bill allowing 9/11 lawsuits against Saudi Arabia, Wash. Post (Sept. 28, 2016).
 The prior post about the initial passage of JASTA started with the 2015 introduction of the bill and did not attempt to cover earlier versions of the bill or the process referenced by Senator Cornyn. Comments about this earlier process would be much appreciated.
 This bipartisan letter was signed by 15 Democrat Senators (Bennet, Cardin, Carper, Coons, Feinstein, Heitkamp, Hirono, McCaskill, Merkley, Nelson, Reed, Schatz, Shaheen, Udall and Warner), 12 Republican Senators (Alexander, Coats, Corker, Cotton, Flake, Graham, McCain, Risch, Roberts, Rounds, Sullivan and Thune) and Independent Senator King.
 Feinstein, Feinstein Statement on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Sept. 28, 2016).
 The United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities of States and Property is certainly relevant to the issue of international law on the subject. Representative Thornberry, however, failed to quote the entirety of Article 12 of this treaty and thereby reached an erroneous conclusion that it supports JASTA. That Article states, “Unless otherwise agreed between the States concerned, a State cannot invoke immunity from jurisdiction before a court of another State which is otherwise competent in a proceeding which relates to pecuniary compensation for death or injury to the person, or damage to or loss of tangible property, caused by an act or omission which is alleged to be attributable to the State, if the act or omission occurred in whole or in part in the territory of that other State and if the author of the act or omission was present in that territory at the time of the act or omission.” The portion in bold was not quoted by Thornberry. Moreover, this treaty is not yet in force because its Article 30 requires 30 states to become parties thereto, and to date only 21 states have done so, and the U.S. has neither signed nor ratified this treaty.
 White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia 9/28/16.
 Assoc. Press, Congress Rebukes Obama, Overrides Veto of 9/11 Legislation, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016); Reuters, Congress Rejects Obama Veto, Saudi Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Sept, 28, 2016).
 White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King (Sept. 29, 2016).