Enactment of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) Over the Presidential Veto

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:[1]

  • “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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.[7] 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. [8]

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.”[9]

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).[10] 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. [11] 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.”[12] “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).[13]

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.”[14]

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.”[15]

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.[16]

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.”[17]

Conclusion

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.

============================================

[1] 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.

[2] Assoc. Press, Lawmakers Vow to Override Obama’s Veto of Sept. 11 bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 24, 2016).

[3] Cornyn, Cornyn Statement on President’s Veto of JASTA (Sept. 23, 2016).

[4] Demirjian & Ellperin, Congress overrides Obama’s veto of 9/11 bill, Wash, Post (Sept, 28, 2016).

[5] Cornyn, Cornyn Op-Ed: give 9/11 Families a Legal Avenue (Sept. 28, 2016).

[6] Editorial, The Risks of Sueing the Saudis for 9/11, N.Y. Times (Sept. 28, 2016)

[7] 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).

[8] Cong. Rec. S6166-73 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] Cardin, Cardin Statement on JASTA Veto Vote (Sept. 28, 2016).

[12] Feinstein, Feinstein Statement on Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (Sept. 28, 2016).

[13] Cong. Record H6023-32 (Sept. 28, 2016).

[14] 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.

[15] White House, Press Gaggle by Press Secretary Josh Earnest en route Fort Lee, Virginia 9/28/16.

[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).

[17] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Secretary of Education King (Sept. 29, 2016).

 

Pre-Veto Controversies Regarding the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)         

A prior post reviewed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) (S.2040) that was passed by Congress on September 28, 2016, with sufficient votes to override President Obama’s veto of the bill. Now we look at the pre-veto legislative history of JASTA and controversies over the bill.

Legislative History

S.2040 was introduced in the U.S. Senate on September 16, 2015, by Senator John Cornyn (Rep., TX) with 12 Republican and 12 Democrat cosponsors. Without any hearings on the bill, the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 28, 2016, passed an amendment as a substitute for the original bill, and on February 3, 2016, the Committee Chair, Senator Charles Grassley (Rep., IA), reported the bill to the Senate without a written report.[1]

On May 17, 2016, the Senate unanimously passed the JASTA bill with limited debate.[2] On the Senate floor Senator Cornyn offered a substitute amendment and stated that the U.S. Code already had an exception to sovereign immunity for certain acts of terrorism [28 U.S.C. § 1605A], but “it does not extend to terrorist attacks on our homeland by countries and organizations that have not already been designated as state sponsors of terrorism. This [bill] makes some small changes in that legislation that first passed in 1976 to expand the scope of that [provision] to allow the families of the 9/11 tragedy to seek justice in our courts of law.” The bill has been limited to “injury in the United States.” The bill requires injuries caused by “acts of terrorism,” and excludes “acts of war.” Cornyn also discussed the secondary liability provision of the bill.[3]

Immediately following Cornyn that day, Senator Chuck Schumer (Dem., NY), a cosponsor of the bill, emphasized the bill’s provision allowing the Department of Justice to seek a stay of any lawsuit under this exception. Following the Senate’s passage of the bill, Senator Schumer issued a statement praising this action as correcting erroneous court decisions granting immunity to “foreign actors who finance and enable terrorism on a massive scale” and allowing “terrorism victims, like victims of the September 11th attacks [and of any other acts of terrorism on U.S. soil after 9/11] the opportunity to pursue [financial damage claims against] foreign states who sponsor terrorism in federal court.”[4]

On October 23, 2015, an identical companion bill (H.R.3815) was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Peter King (Rep., NY) with 31 Republican and 30 Democrat cosponsors. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which did not hold any hearings on the bill. On September 9, 2016, the Senate companion bill (S.2040) was agreed to and passed by a voice vote in the House.[5]

 Pre-Veto Controversies Over JASTA

The Senate passage of JASTA, on May 17, 2016, was despite lobbying against the bill by Administration officials and warnings by the Saudi government that if the legislation passed, that country might begin selling off up to $750 billion in U.S. Treasury securities and other assets in the U.S. before they faced the danger of being frozen by American courts.[6]

In the midst of this congressional consideration of JASTA, on July 15, 2016, the Senate/House Select Intelligence Committee published the previously classified 28 pages regarding possible connections between Saudi Arabia and 9/11 from the Committee’s “Report on Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities Before and After the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.”

A journalist said that these 28 pages set forth “a wide-ranging catalog of meetings and suspicious coincidences. It details contacts between Saudi officials and some of the Sept. 11 hijackers, checks from Saudi royals to operatives in contact with the hijackers and the discovery of a telephone number in a Qaeda militant’s phone book that was traced to a corporation managing an Aspen, Colo., home of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington.” The 28-pages also said, ”It was not the task of this Joint Inquiry to conduct the kind of extensive investigation that would be required to determine the true significance of any such alleged connections to the Saudi Government. . . [But the Committee found no evidence that the] “Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded” Al Qaeda.[7]

Some former September 11 Commission staff members, however, pointed out that the wording in the group’s final report did not rule out the possibility that lower ranking Saudi officials had assisted the hijackers.

On the same day (July 15, 2016) of the release of the 28-pages of the Senate report, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “This information, even as it’s now publicly available, does not change the assessment of the U.S. government [as stated in these 28 pages] that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution, or senior Saudi officials individually funded al Qaeda. . . . And the 9/11 Commission was able to draw on the information that’s been declassified today as they wrote their report.  They were able to do follow-up interviews and to further investigate those leads.  Those leads didn’t really turn up anything as it relates to specific evidence about the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funding al Qaeda.”[8]

Press Secretary Earnest also stated, “based on the analysis that’s been conducted by our lawyers here in the U.S. government, the way that this [proposed] law [JASTA] is written could open up U.S. companies and even potentially U.S. personnel to vulnerabilities when they’re engaged in actions or doing business or conducting official government work overseas. There is an important principle related to sovereign immunity.  And when you’re the most powerful country in the world, you’re invested in the idea of sovereign immunity, given how deeply the United States is involved in so many other countries.”

On September 9 (the same date as the House passage of JASTA) the New York Times reported that the Obama Administration had been lobbying against the bill for months and that according to Jack Goldsmith, a professor of law at Harvard and a former official in the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush, “Congress itself could have investigated lingering questions about 9/11, but instead is delegating those tasks to the unelected judiciary. The costs of the law will be borne by courts, which are an awkward place to ascertain Saudi responsibility for 9/11, and especially the president, who will have to deal with the diplomatic fallout with Saudi Arabia and other nations.”

The Times also quoted Pierre Lellouche, a member of the French Parliament, who said he would pursue legislation that would permit French citizens to sue the United States with cause. “I have sympathy with the notion of hitting those countries which actively support terrorism.” But the American bill “will cause a legal revolution in international law with major political consequences.” Even the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee expressed some hesitancy over the bill. He said, “We were able to get some changes to make it less damaging to potential dangers over time. We as a nation have got more to lose on sovereignty issues than any other nation in the world. If the White House actually vetoes this, I think there will be whole levels of discussion.”[9]

Senator John Cornyn, the author of the bill, however, started a barrage of comments urging President Obama to sign the bill by saying on September 9, “the families of those lost in attacks like that on September 11th should have every means at their disposal to seek justice. . . . I hope the President will sign it into law.”  On the Senate floor on September 12 Cornyn said: “It’s important for us to send a message that that evil shall not prevail. . . . [The] victims [of 9/11] and their families still don’t have the ability to get justice from the people, including the governments, who helped fund those terrorist attacks. And that’s where the bill . . . [JASTA] comes into play because if this legislation is signed by the President, it will become the law of the land . . . to make sure that these families who are still grieving and still don’t have closure will be able to seek justice in a court of law against the people who killed their loved one on September 11th.” Cornyn on September 13 threatened an override of a presidential veto of the bill.[10]

President Obama, however, did not sign the bill into law. Instead, On September 23, he vetoed the bill as will be discussed in a subsequent post.

=================================================

[1] Library of Congress, THOMAS: S.2040 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act . Going back to 2009, earlier versions of this law were introduced, but I have not examined the history of those versions. If a reader of this post has done so, please elaborate in a comment to this post.

[2] Cong. Record S2845-48 (May 17, 2016); Mazzetti, Senate Passes Bill Exposing Saudi Arabia to 9/11 Legal Claims, N.Y. Times (May 17, 2016).

[3] U.S. Cong. Rec. S2845-2848 (May 17, 2016).

[4] Schumer, Schumer Announces Passage of Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Bill—Urges House to Quickly Pass Legislation Allowing American Families To Seek Justice After 9/11 Attacks (May 17, 2016); Schumer, Schumer Urges House To Swiftly Pass JASTA Bill; Law Would Allow Victims To Seek Justice for Terrorist Acts on U.S. Soil, Senator Says American Families Deserve Their Day in Court (Sept. 7, 2016).

[5] Cong. Record H5239-44 (Sept. 9, 2016); Library of Congress, THOMAS: H.R.3815 Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act.

[6] See n.2 supra.

[7] Mazzetti, In 9/11 Document, View of a Saudi Effort to Thwart U.S. Action on Al Queda, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016);    House/Senate Select Comm., 28 Pages of the 2002 Congressional Inquiry into the Sept. 2011 Attacks, N.Y. Times (July 15, 2016).

[8] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest (July 15, 2016).

[9] Steinhauer, House Passes Bill Allowing 9/11 Lawsuits Against Saudi Arabia; White House Hints at Veto, N.Y. Times (Sept. 9, 2016).

[10] Cornyn, Cornyn Calls on President to sign 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 9, 2016);Cornyn, Cornyn: American People Support 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 12, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Don’t Keep 9/11 Families Waiting (Sept. 13, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn Presses White House to Act on 9/11 Victims Bill (Sept. 19, 2016); Cornyn, Cornyn to White House: Stop Stalling on 9/11 Bill (Sept. 20, 2016).

 

 

U.S. State Department’s 2015 Human Trafficking Report’s Objectivity About Cuba Is Still Unresolved

On July 27 the U.S. Department of State released its 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which upgraded Cuba from Tier 3 (a country that did “not fully comply with the [Trafficking in Persons Protection Act] minimum standards and [was] not making significant efforts to do so”) to Tier 2.Watch List (a country that did not fully comply with [that statute’s] minimum standards, but [was] making significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance with those standards).[1] A prior post reviewed that report’s discussion of Cuba and expressed disagreement with its assertion that Cuban medical personnel’s participation in foreign medical missions was illegal forced labor.

Since then there has been congressional criticism and concern about that report’s upgrading of several countries, including Cuba, as seen in recent congressional hearings.

The most recent hearing was on November 4, before a House of Representatives subcommittee. Most of the hearing was devoted to the report’s upgrading of Malaysia, Uzbekistan and China.[2]

Alex Lee
Alex Lee

Cuba’s upgrade was the focus of the testimony at this hearing by Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He testified that the shift in U.S.-Cuban relations did not influence the decision on Cuba. “It was completely separate,” he told the subcommittee.

Mark Lagon
Mark Lagon

This assessment of Cuba was challenged by the testimony at this hearing of Mark Lagon, the President of Freedom House. He stated that “Freedom House ranks Cuba as ‘Not Free’” and that the Department’s “grounds for an upgrade are deeply questionable.” Indeed, Lagon said, the Department’s report itself undercuts any rationale for an upgrade when it states: (a) “The penal code does not criminalize all forms of human trafficking on paper, not to speak of enforcement.” (b) “The Cuba regime did not even dissemble and claim any ‘efforts to prevent forced labor’ nor ‘any trafficking-specific shelters.” Moreover, according to Lagon, “It is far-fetched to suppose that there is no forced labor in state enterprises or for political prisoners in one of the world’s few remaining Marxist-Leninist states. Also, a burgeoning sex industry – welcoming sex tourism – fuels exploitation, despite steps the Report notes taken by Cuba to address sex trafficking.”

Rep. Chris Smith
Rep. Chris Smith

The attitude towards Cuba of this subcommittee’s chair, Christopher Smith (Rep., NJ), was revealed in his press release on July 27 (the date of the release of the 2015 TIP report), when he said, “For political reasons alone, President Obama has done a grave disservice to victims of human trafficking in Cuba . . . by upgrading the human trafficking tier rankings in those countries in the annual Trafficking in Persons report.” He added,  “It seems quite clear that . . . Cuba’s unchecked march to normalized relations have captured the Obama Administration’s ability to properly access the worst of the worst when it comes to fighting to protect trafficking victims and punish the thugs who mastermind this modern day slavery.  It is no coincidence that earlier this year the Obama Administration also removed Cuba from the national list of state sponsors of terrorism. One-by-one this Administration is overriding human rights and national security policies for another agenda.”

The same issue of the objectivity of the TIP Report was considered on September 17 by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations at a closed briefing by Anthony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State, entitled “State Department Processes in Establishing Tier Rankings for the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report.”   As the briefing was closed, we do not know what happened although at another hearing on September 22 Chairman Bob Corker (Rep., TN) mentioned that after this briefing he had made a request to the State Department for three unspecified items of information about the 2015 report.

Susan Coppedge
Susan Coppedge

Related to the issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report was the September 22 hearing by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the nomination of Susan Coppedge to be the Ambassador-at-Large and Director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

Although her written and oral testimony did not touch on Cuba, she made certain commitments if she were confirmed by the Senate, that bear on the overall issue of the objectivity of such future reports. Those commitments included the following: (a) “to use this position passionately to advocate for the rights of individuals to be free from forced labor or sex trafficking, for victims of human trafficking to have access to comprehensive services, for survivors to be empowered to have a voice in policy, and for an end to the trafficking of human beings;” (b) “to uphold the integrity of the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report and its tier rankings, including by ensuring the facts from the field are accurately presented in the report;” and (c) “to maintain a close working relationship with Congress and with those federal agencies engaged in the fight against human trafficking.”

Senator Bob Corker
Senator Bob Corker

At the hearing all the members in attendance expressed support for the nomination, and afterwards Chairman Corker released a statement reiterating his strong support.[3]

Conclusion

The issue of the objectivity of the 2015 TIP Report regarding Cuba and certain other countries still has not been resolved, and I am confident that we will hear more about this issue from Congress.

================================================

[1] The Tier 2 Watch List also requires that “a) The absolute number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing; b) There is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year; or c) The determination that a country is making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with minimum standards was based on commitments by the country to take additional future steps over the next year.”

[2] U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Subcommittee Hearing: Demanding Accountability: Evaluating the 2015 “Trafficking in Persons Report” (Nov. 4, 2015); Lagon, Statement for Subcommittee Hearing (Nov. 4, 2015); Sagnip,, Author of U.S. Human Trafficking Laws Demands End to Politicized Tier Rankings in Trafficking Report (Nov. 4, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Says Human Trafficking Report Not Softened for Political Reasons, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2015); Sagnip. Cuba and Malaysia Taken Off ‘Bad Actors’ Trafficking List for Political Reasons (July 27, 2015).

[3] Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, Hearing on Nominations [Susan Coppedge] (Sept. 22, 2105); Senate Comm. Foreign Relations, Coppedge: Testimony (Sept. 22, 2015) Senate Comm. Foreign Relations, Corker Seeks TIP Report Integrity from Nominee to Combat Human Trafficking (Sept. 22, 2015).

 

 

 

 

New Senate Bill To End U.S. Embargo of Cuba

Senator Jerry Moran
Senator Jerry Moran
Senator Angus King
Senator Angus King

On June 10, 2015, Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS) introduced S.1543 Cuba Trade Act of 2015 to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba. With Senator Angus King (Ind., ME) as the cosponsor, the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which has not taken any action on S.491, the bill to end the embargo that was introduced in February by Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) that was discussed in a prior post.

More specifically, S.1543 repeals restrictions on trade with Cuba under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996; and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

In addition, S.1543 has provisions whereby the federal government may not obligate or expend any funds to promote trade with or develop markets in Cuba, except for certain commodity promotion programs. These were important provisions. Moran’s office called them “taxpayer protection provisions” that observers see as ways to win over reluctant Republicans support for ending the embargo.

Senator Moran’s press release [1] said the bill “would grant the private sector the freedom to export U.S. goods and services to Cuba while protecting U.S. taxpayers from any risk or exposure associated with such trade.” Cuba, Senator Moran stated, was “a natural market for our nation’s farmers and ranchers. By lifting the embargo and opening up the market for U.S. agricultural commodities, we will not only boost the U.S. economy but also help bring about reforms in the repressive Cuban government. I am hopeful that increasing the standard of living among Cuban citizens will enable them to make greater demands on their own government to increase individual and political rights.”[2]

Senator King added, “For far too long, the Cuban people and American businesses have suffered at the hands of an antiquated trade embargo. . . . The Cuba Trade Act would finally end our outdated embargo policy and establish a new economic relationship with Cuba that will support increased trade for American businesses and help the Cuban economy and its people to flourish.”

Moran’s press release also observed, “Nearly 150 U.S. organizations have voiced their strong support for commonsense reforms related to U.S.-Cuba relations including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Foreign Trade Council, the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Farmers Union.”

I hope that having a Republican author of a bill to end the embargo and this bill’s taxpayer protection provisions will enhance the chances of this Republican-controlled Senate endorsing the ending of the embargo. And then enhance the chances of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives doing the same.

============================================================

[1] Senator King issued a similar press release.

[2] In early January Senator Moran spoke in favor of ending the embargo at the early January 2015 launching of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba that favors ending the embargo.

More House Republican Efforts To Impede U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives continue inserting into appropriation bills provisions to impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Here are three more.

Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 [1]

On June 11, the House passed, 278-149, the Department of Defense Appropriation Act, 2016 (H.R.2685). According to the Appropriations Committee press release, the bill would provide $578.6 billion to fund “critical national security needs, military operations abroad, and health and quality-of-life programs for the men and women of the Armed Forces and their families.”

The bill also would bar the use of funds (i) “to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or [other non-U.S. citizens or non-members of U.S. Armed Forces at Guantanamo Bay Cuba on or after June 24, 2009] (Section 8100); (ii) “to construct, acquire, or modify any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any [such] individual” (Section 8101); and (iii) “to transfer any individual detained at . . . Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody or control of the individual’s country of origin, any other foreign country, or any other foreign entity except in accordance with section 1035 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014” (Section 8102).

Also on June 11 the Senate Appropriations Committee approved, 27-3, its defense- funding bill for $575.9 billion. Although only three Democrats voted against the bill, the Democrats’ leaders said they would block the bill on the floor because it continues the sequestration of funding, which they oppose. However, the committee did vote 18-12 to adopt a measure by Senator Jeanne Shaheen (Dem, NH) to express the sense of the Senate that the budget caps should be lifted.

Moreover, Democratic senators are threatening to block consideration of all spending bills unless the Republicans agree to a budget summit. In addition, the White House is threatening to veto any such measure that has the sequestration caps.

A motion to amend the bill was offered by Democratic Senators Dick Durbin (IL) and Diane Feinstein (CA) to allow the Obama administration to transfer Guantánamo Bay detainees to maximum-security prisons in the U.S., but it was defeated, 14-16.
Durbin argued that it cost $3.2 million per year to house a detainee at the Cuban prison, versus $70,000 at a super-max facility in the U.S. while Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a retired Air Force colonel and a 2016 presidential candidate, argued the funding for Guantánamo is “money well spent” and hoped “we fill the damn place up.”

The White House has threatened a veto of these bills over insufficient funding and the above provisions relating to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

State Department Appropriations Act FY 2016 [2]

On June 11 the House Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the appropriations bill for the State Department and Foreign Operations for FY 2016. It would provide nearly $47.8 billion, which is 11% ($869 million) less than the White House’s request.[3]

The bill contains provisions that impede U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. The main one is Section 7045 (c)(3)(A) (pp. 175-76), that would bar the use of funds (i) “for the establishment or operations of a United States diplomatic presence, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in Cuba beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014;” or (ii) “to facilitate the establishment or operation of a diplomatic mission of Cuba, including an Embassy, Consulate, or liaison office, in the United States beyond that which was in existence prior to December 17, 2014.”[4]

There are still other references to Cuba in the bill. Section 7045 (c)(1) allocates $30 million “to promote democracy and strengthen civil society in Cuba: Provided, That no funds shall be obligated for business promotion, economic reform, entrepreneurship, or any other assistance that is not democracy-building as expressly authorized in the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity (LIBERTAD)Act of 1996 and the Cuban Democracy Act (CDA) of 1992.” Section 7045 (c)(2) prohibits use of certain funds to establish any organization to carry out the existing broadcasting and related programs for Latin America and the Caribbean region or to alter the structure of Cuba Broadcasting. Others are Section 7007 (p. 64)(no funds for “assistance or reparations for the governments of Cuba, North Korea, Iran or Syria”); and Section 7015 (f) (p. 76-81)(no funds for assistance to Cuba and certain other countries).

Reacting to the Committee’s previous release of a draft of the bill, the White House budget director Shaun Donovan said the funding level “will pose a significant constraint on USAID and the Department of State’s ability to conduct diplomatic engagement. Taken together, these cuts would impede our ability to conduct effective diplomacy and development, essential components of our national security,” Donovan also criticized the ban on funds for a new embassy in Havana. He said it would interfere with the executive branch’s ability “to make the best decisions consistent with our national security.”

The bill also has a provision to withhold 15 percent of the State Department’s operational funds, unless it turns over documents faster to the congressional panel investigating the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

Treasury Department Appropriations Act FY 2016[5]

On June 10 the Appropriations Committee released the draft Financial Services Bill FY 2016. According to the Committee’s press release, the bill allocates $20.2 billion for the Treasury Department, the Judiciary, the Small Business Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and several other agencies. It purportedly prioritizes “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws, maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow.” It also “reduces or eliminates lower-priority programs and cuts funding to poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

The Committee’s press release also discloses that the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I searched, but could not find these provisions in the 156-page draft bill, and I solicit comments to identify these provisions. Here is an outline of the bill to assist in such an endeavor

Title Pages Subject
I 2-27 Department of Treasury
II 27-41 Executive Office of the President
III 42-50 Judiciary
IV 51-61 District of Columbia
V 61-96 Independent Agencies
VI 96-111 General Provisions—This Act
VII 111-146 General Provisions—Government-Wide
VIII 146-156 General Provisions—District of Columbia
IX 156 Additional General Provision

The draft bill on June 11 was submitted for markup to the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, but so far no information is available about the result of that markup. It will be before the full Committee for markup on June 17th.

Conclusion

I already have expressed my disgust at these anti-reconciliation measures and at the tactic of including them in appropriations bills and thereby running the risk of partial or complete government shutdown if the President vetoes some or all of such bills.

Therefore, all supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should contact their representatives and senators to urge them to seek to eliminate these provisions. Contact information for senator and representatives is available online.

===========================================================

[1] Department of Defense Appropriations Act 2016 (H.R. 2685); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Appropriations Committee House Releases Fiscal 2016 Defense Bill (May 19, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Passes Fiscal Year 2016 Defense Appropriations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak & Wong, OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: House passes defense spending bill, The Hill (June 11, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Passes Defense Spending Bill, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[2] House App. Comm., Draft Bill Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (June 2, 2015); House App. Comm, Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations bill, (June 2, 2015); Reuters, U.S. House Panel Seeks to Ban Funding for U.S. Embassy in Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 2, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 State and Foreign Operations Bill (June 11, 2015); Matishak, Funding bill advances despite criticism of Benghazi provision, The Hill (June 11, 2015), Shabab, WH budget chief: GOP spending bill would interfere with diplomacy, The Hill (June 10, 2015); Assoc. Press, House Panel Oks Bill Punishing State Over Benghazi Response, N.Y. Times (June 11, 2015).

[3] A prior post discussed the draft of this bill.

[4] The above prohibited use of funds would “not apply if the President determines and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that the government in Cuba has met the requirements and factors specified in section 205 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (22 U.S.C. 6065).” (Section 7045 (c )(3)(B).)

[5]  House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (June 10, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., A Bill Making appropriations for financial services and general government for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016 and for other purposes (June 10, 2015);  Shabad, House Republicans propose $838 million cut to IRS, The Hill (June 10, 2015).

 

U.S. House Approves Impediments to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

In early June the U.S. House of Representatives approved two appropriations bills that contain impediments to U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Both of these sets of impediments are the handiwork of Cuban-American Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL), a fierce opponent of such reconciliation and a member of the House Committee on Appropriations.

Commerce Department Appropriations Act, FY 2016[1]

On June 3, the House, by a vote of 242-183, approved the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill for FY 2016 (H.R. 2578) to fund the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation and other related agencies. The bill contains $51.4 billon in total discretionary funding.

The Committee’s press release about this action said nothing about a provision that prohibits U.S. exports to the Cuban military. That is Section 540 (pp. 97-98 of the 98-page bill), which states as follows:

  • “(a) No funds made available in this Act may be used to facilitate, permit, license, or promote exports to the Cuban military or intelligence service or to any officer of the Cuban military or intelligence service, or an immediate family member thereof.
  • (b) This section does not apply to exports of goods permitted under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7201 et seq.).
  • (c) In this section—(1) the term ‘‘Cuban military or intelligence service’’ includes, but is not limited to, the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and the Ministry of the Interior, of Cuba, and any subsidiary of either such Ministry; and (2) the term ‘‘immediate family member’’ means a spouse, sibling, son, daughter, parent, grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew.”

Representative Sam Farr (Dem, CA) on June 3 made a motion to delete this provision, but it was defeated, 153-273. He argued that section 540 would apply so broadly with its definitions that it would constrain trade with Cuba. He said, “It hurts American businesses, and it hurts Cubans. Let’s stop living in the past.”

Section 540 and the defeated amendment were prominent in Congressman Diaz-Balart’s press release about the House’s passage of this bill. He said, “I strongly support . . . the provision that prohibits exports to the Cuban military. I firmly opposed the [defeated] amendment which would have stripped that common sense provision.”

The provision (Section 540), Diaz-Balart asserted, “ensures that exports to Cuba accomplish precisely that goal [of U.S. goods reaching the Cuban people].  Certainly the supporting of the Cuban people must not include channeling goods to the Cuban military and intelligence service that oppress them through arbitrary arrests, violence, intimidation, and unjust imprisonments.”

Moreover, according to Diaz-Balart, the Cuban military “engages in illegal weapons smuggling, subverts democratic institutions in Venezuela, and assists foreign terrorist organizations and other rogue regimes such as North Korea.  Furthermore, The Florida Congressman asserts, “several Members of the Cuban military remain under indictment for the murder of innocent U.S. citizens. Exports delivered to the Cuban military will do nothing to benefit the Cuban people, but can only directly fund the oppressive arm of the Castro dictatorship that remains a malevolent actor on the world stage.”

Diaz-Balart’s fellow Cuban-American Republican colleague from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another strong opponent of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, issued a similar statement.

Another provision of the bill (Section 528) prohibits construction or modifying U.S. facilities to accommodate transferred Guantanamo detainees. A motion to delete this provision by Representative Jerry Nadler (Dem., NY) was defeated by a voice vote.

Transportation Department Appropriations Act, FY2016 [2]

The House on June 9, by a 216-210 vote, passed the FY 2016 appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and related agencies (H.R.2577). According to the House Appropriations Committee, it allocates $55.3 billion targeted at transportation, infrastructure and housing programs of national need and significance.

An earlier post quoted sections 193 and 414 of the bill that barred air or maritime travel to Cuba if they used property that had been expropriated without compensation by the Cuban government.[3]

During a June 4 debate on this bill the House defeated, 176-247, an amendment offered by Representative Barbara Lee (Dem., CA), to delete these two sections that adversely would affect the impact of the new regulations issued by the Department of Commerce this January to expand travel. Lee argued theses provisions were “wrong for diplomacy . . .[and] patently anti-business.”

Another supporter of this amendment was Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), the author of a bill to expand U.S. travel to Cuba (H.R.664), who argued that travel to Cuba should not be equated with supporting the Castro regime.

This Cuba provision is also the work of Representative Diaz-Balart, who said on June 4 that the Obama administration was wrong to lift the travel restrictions, saying that the flights would land at an airport that was partly owned by American interests when it was seized by the Castro government.“What you are saying is, ‘It’s O.K. to do business on property that was stolen from Americans.’ ” However, he added, “supporting the Cuban people does not include . . . facilitating the unlawful use of stolen properties that were illegally confiscated from Americans.”[4]

Diaz-Balart’s fellow Cuban-American Republican colleague from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen issued a similar statement.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, in part because of this Cuba-related provision.

Conclusion

The congressional Republicans apparently have decided to ignore the desires of a majority of the American people and of Cuban-Americans, as demonstrated by numerous public opinion polls, to have improved relations with Cuba and as discussed in posts on February 12 and 17. Instead, the congressional Republicans apparently have hitched their wagon to the hysterical voices of their Cuban-American members. I deplore this defiance of public opinion.

 

The congressional Republicans also apparently have forgotten the 1964 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding Cuba’s expropriation of property, Banco Nacional de Cuba v. Sabbatino , 376 U.S. 398 (1964). There the court decided that the judicially-created act of state doctrine prevented U.S. courts from adjudicating a claim that the Cuban expropriation violated international law. According to the Court, ”the Judicial Branch will not examine the validity of a taking of property within its own territory by a foreign sovereign government, extant and recognized by this country at the time of suit, in the absence of a treaty or other unambiguous agreement regarding controlling legal principles, even if the complaint alleges that the taking violates customary international law.”[5]

Important to that conclusion in Sabbatino was the Court’s opinion that at least in 1964, “There are few if any issues in international law today on which opinion seems to be so divided as the limitations on a state’s power to expropriate the property of aliens. There is, of course, authority, in international judicial and arbitral decisions, in the expressions of national governments, and among commentators for the view that a taking is improper under international law if it is not for a public purpose, is discriminatory, or is without provision for prompt, adequate, and effective compensation.”

However, according to the Court in Sabbatino, “Communist countries, although they have in fact provided a degree of compensation after diplomatic efforts, commonly recognize no obligation on the part of the taking country. Certain representatives of the newly independent and underdeveloped countries have questioned whether rules of state responsibility toward aliens can bind nations that have not consented to them, and it is argued that the traditionally articulated standards governing expropriation of property reflect ‘imperialist’ interests, and are inappropriate to the circumstances of emergent states. The disagreement as to relevant international law standards reflects an even more basic divergence between the national interests of capital importing and capital exporting nations, and between the social ideologies of those countries that favor state control of a considerable portion of the means of production and those that adhere to a free enterprise system. It is difficult to imagine the courts of this country embarking on adjudication in an area which touches more sensitively the practical and ideological goals of the various members of the community of nations.”

I also deplore the congressional Republican tactic of attaching their out-of-touch Cuba prescriptions to appropriations bills and thereby risking partial government shutdowns if the President vetoes such measures.

The U.S. should be doing all it can to advance the cause of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. Unfortunately the Republicans’ shrill rhetoric about the Cuban expropriation of U.S. property without compensation and its insertion of provisions on the subject into appropriations bills do nothing whatsoever to advance the Administration’s existing efforts to engage Cuba in negotiations about compensation for such expropriation and, if necessary, to litigate such U.S. claims before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

In the meantime, supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should urge their Senators to seek to delete the previously mentioned Cuba provisions in these appropriations bills. Senators’ contact information is available on the Internet.

=============================================================

[1] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: House Passes Fiscal Year 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science Bill (June 3, 2015); H.R.2578: A Bill Making appropriations for the Departments of Commerce and Justice, Science, and Related Agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes (May 27, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Report on H.R.2578 (No. 114-130) (May 27, 2015); Library of Congress, THOMAS, H.Amdt.308 to H.R.2578 [Farr amendment] (June 3, 2015); Library of Congress, THOMAS, H.Amdt.306 to H.R.2578 [Nadler amendment]; Marcos & Shabad, House passes fourth ’16 appropriations bill, The Hill (June 3, 2015); Marcos, House votes to block exports to Cuban military, The Hill (June 3, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Press Release: U.S. Resources Must Not Be Funneled through Castro’s Regime’s Military and Intelligence Services (June 3, 2015); Ros-Lehtinen, Press Release: House of Reps. Overwhelmingly Votes to Oppose Farr Amendment and Supports Not Doing Business with the Cuban Military and Cuban Intelligence Service (June 3, 2015).

[2] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Fiscal Year 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill Passes House (June 9, 2015); Library of Congress, THOMAS, H.R.2577; Library of Congress, THOMAS, H.Amdt.404 to H.R. 2577 [Lee amendment]; Marcos & Shabad, House passes funding for transportation, housing, The Hill (June 9, 2015); Assoc. Press, House GOP Measure Would Cut Amtrak by $242M, N.Y. Times (June 9, 2015); Assoc. Press, G.O.P.-Led House Votes to Keep Curbs on American Travel to Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 4, 2015);Taylor, Republican-Led House votes against easing travel to Cuba, Wash. Post (June 4, 2015); Marcos, House rejects easing Cuba travel restrictions, The Hill (June 4, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Press Release: Historic, Bipartisan Votes in House Reject President Obama’s Policy of Appeasement of the Castro Regime (June 4, 2015); Ros-Lehtinen, Press Release: House of Representatives Stands Up For U.S. Citizens and Defeats Lee Amendment That Would Have Condoned Cuban Trafficking in Confiscated American Property (June 4, 2015).

[3] There also are two pending stand-alone bills (S.1388 and H.R.2466) that would limit U.S.-Cuba reconciliation because of the unresolved U.S. claims for compensation for expropriated property, as discussed in a prior post.

[4] The June 9 Diaz-Balart press release on the House adoption of “the Diaz-Balart bill” was focused on the bill’s prioritization of “the nation’s infrastructure and housing needs.” It also reiterated his trumpeting of the bill’s provisions about Cuba: “The common sense provisions in the bill, which prohibit new flights to Cuba and deny licenses to marine vessels that use property confiscated from Americans, further core American values and safeguard the property rights of Americans.  We must not permit the exploitation of properties stolen by the Castro regime, which is expressly prohibited in U.S. law.”

 

[5] The opinion of the Court in Sabbatino was written by Mr. Justice John Marshall Harlan, II and was joined by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices Black, Douglas, Clark, Brennan, Stewart and Goldberg. Mr. Justice White dissented on the ground that the act of state doctrine should not apply and that the U.S. courts should resolve the case on the merits. The Supreme Court’s decision was criticized in Congress, which passed the so-called Second Hickenlooper Amendment (or Sabbatino Amendment) that provided that U.S. courts are not to apply the Act of State Doctrine as a bar against hearing cases of expropriation by a foreign sovereign unless the Executive requests that the courts consider the Act of State Doctrine because foreign policy interests may be damaged by judicial interference. The Amendment was retroactive and subsequently was found constitutional by the district court and the complaint in Sabbatino was dismissed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pending Congressional Authorization and Appropriation Bills Relating to Cuba

Prior posts reviewed pending congressional legislation supporting and opposing U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

References to Cuba are also found in three pending appropriation bills that appropriate or set aside money to specific federal departments, agencies and programs; such bills, under the Constitution, must originate in the House of Representatives. Other references to Cuba exist in two pending authorization bills that authorize activities of federal departments, agencies and programs; such bills, under the Constitution, may originate in either chamber of the Congress. Details of these bills may be found on the Library of Congress’ THOMAS website. All of these bills will be discussed in this post.

 Appropriation Bills

 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2015 (H.R.240). This bill was introduced in the House on January 9, 2015, was passed by the House on January 14th and by the Senate with an amendment on February 27, and on March 3 the House concurred in the Senate’s amendment. On March 4 it was signed into law (Pub. L. No. 114-4) by the President.[1]

Section 533 of Pub. L. No. 114-4 states, “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available in this or any other Act may be used to transfer, release, or assist in the transfer or release to or within the United States, its territories, or possessions Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or any other detainee who—(1) is not a United States citizen or a member of the Armed Forces of the United States; and (2) is or was held on or after June 24, 2009, at the United States Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the Department of Defense.” (Emphasis added.)

Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2016 (H.R.2029). This bill was introduced in the House on April 24 and passed by the House on April 30. On May 21, the bill was reported favorably by the Senate Appropriations Committee with an amendment in the nature of a substitute, and it was placed on the Senate’s Legislative Calendar.

Section 512 of the House’s version of this bill and section 410 of the Senate’s version of this bill provides that none of the funds “may be used to construct, renovate, or expand any facility in the United States, its territories, or possessions to house any individual [who is not a U.S. citizen or member of the U.S. armed forces] detained at United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for the purposes of detention or imprisonment in the custody or under the control of the Department of Defense.” However, this restriction does not apply to any modification of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station.

Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2016 (H.R.—) On May 13th the U.S. House Appropriations Committee approved the Final Committee Draft of this Act under the title, “A BILL –Making appropriations for the Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and related agencies for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes.” The vote to approve was adopted on a straight party-line vote, 30 Republicans to 21 Democrats.[2]

This draft bill contains two restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. One of the proposed restrictions is found in Section 193 (pp. 69-70), which states as follows:

  • “None of the funds made available in this Act may be used to facilitate new scheduled air transportation originating from the United States if such flights would land on, or pass through, property confiscated by the Cuban Government, including property in which a minority interest was confiscated, as the terms confiscated, Cuban Government, and property are defined in paragraphs (4), (5), and (12)(A), respectively, of section 4 of 5 the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (22 U.S.C. 6023 (4), (5), and 7 (12)(A)): Provided, That for this section, new scheduled air transportation shall include any flights not already regularly scheduled prior to March 31, 2015.”

The other proposed restriction is in Section 414 of the draft bill (p. 154), which states as follows:

  • “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Federal Maritime Commission or the Administrator of the Maritime Administration to issue a license or certificate for a commercial vessel that docked or anchored within the previous 180 days within 7 miles of a port on property that was confiscated, in whole or in part, by the Cuban Government, as the terms confiscated, Cuban Government, and property are defined in paragraphs (4), (5), and (12)(A), respectively, of section 4 of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996 (22 U.S.C. 6023).”

 Authorization Bills

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 (H.R.1735). This bill was introduced in the House on April 13 and was passed by the House on May 15. It has the following nine sections relating to Guantanamo Bay Naval Station:

  • Section 1034 requires reports to Congress about contacts between terrorists and former Guantanamo detainees.
  • Section 1035 requires reports to Congress to include information about recidivism of former Guantanamo detainees.
  • Section 1036 bans the release of certain Guantanamo detainees into the U.S.
  • Section 1037 bans use of funds to construct or modify facilities in U.S. for certain Guantanamo detainees.
  • Section 1038 bans the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to a combat zone.
  • Sections 1039-1041 require certain certifications and documents to be submitted to Congress for transfer of Guantanamo detainees to foreign countries.
  • Section 1042 bans the use of funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees to Yemen.

National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 (S.1376). On May 19 it was introduced and reported favorably to the Senate and placed on its Legislative Calendar. It contains provisions (Sections 1031-1038) regarding Guantanamo Bay detainees that are similar to those in the House version of the bill.

Conclusion

For two reasons, the most troublesome of these bills for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation is the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2016. First, it would impose restrictions on travel by air or sea from the U.S. to Cuba. Second, although President Obama has the power to veto this bill as he has for all other bills, including those discussed in the prior post about measures opposing reconciliation, vetoing an appropriations bill means that certain parts of the federal government would not be funded for the period covered by the bill with a lot of adverse collateral consequences beyond the Cuba issues.

The other bills mentioned in this post have provisions directly interfering with President Obama’s long-held desire to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities and program and indirectly affecting U.S. negotiations over Guantanamo with Cuba.[3]

Supporters of reconciliation should urge their representatives in the Senate and House to oppose the Cuba anti-travel provisions in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Act, 2016. Contact information for the members of the House and Senate is available online.

===================================================

[1] H.R.240 apparently superseded H.R.861 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2015 and S.272 Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2015.

[2] This House Appropriations Committee action was discussed in a prior post.

[3] Most of these provisions about Guantanamo exist in free-standing bills discussed in the post about bills opposing reconciliation.