Historian Wilentz’ Response to Senator Tom Cotton on the Issue of Slavery 

U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AR) recently has been criticizing The 1619 Project ‘of the New York Times. The Project, he said, was “a racially divisive, revisionist account . . . that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which the nation was founded” although slavery “was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.”[1] The latter comment was made by the Senator in a recent interview by Tucker Carlson of FoxNews, in which Cotton claimed to draw support from prominent American historians, one of whom was Sean Wilentz of Princeton University.

Wilentz’ Response to Cotton[2]

Although four other American historians and I have “fundamental publicized objections to the project, . . . these in no way mitigate Cotton’s serious misrepresentations of the historical record for evident political gain.”

“Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has introduced a bill in Congress that would punish school districts that use The New York Times’s 1619 Project in their curriculum by withholding federal funding. In so doing, he announced in a newspaper interview that America’s schoolchildren need to learn that the nation’s Founders said slavery ‘was the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’ His statement is as preposterous as it is false: presuming to clarify American history, Cotton has grievously distorted it.”

“None of the delegates who framed the Constitution in 1787 called slavery a ‘necessary evil.’ Some of them called slavery an evil, but not a necessary one. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, for example, declared to the Constitutional Convention that he would ‘never concur in upholding domestic slavery,’ that ‘nefarious institution’ based on ‘the most cruel bondages’—’the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed.’ The great majority of the Framers joined Morris in fighting to ensure that slavery would be excluded from national law.”

“James Madison, the most influential delegate at the convention, explicitly repudiated the idea of building the union on slavery, stating that it would be ‘wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.’ Though himself a slaveholder, Madison wanted to guarantee that the Constitution, while it might tolerate slavery in the states where it existed, would neither enshrine human bondage in national law nor recognize it as legitimate.”

“A minority of the Framers, from the lower South, disagreed, but they believed slavery was no evil at all. ‘If slavery be wrong,’ Charles Pinckney of South Carolina declared, ‘it is justified by the example of all the world.’ Far from a necessary evil, Pinckney thought slavery was a necessary good, as it had been for time immemorial. ‘In all ages,’ he claimed, ‘one half of mankind have been slaves.’”

“There was, to be sure, one delegate who resembled Senator Cotton’s description: Pinckney’s cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, also from South Carolina. At one point in the convention debates, a perturbed Cotesworth Pinckney registered a complaint, seeming to desire, Madison noted, ‘that some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.’ That would have based the Union firmly on the constitutional right of slavery. And Cotesworth Pinckney did come close to calling slavery a necessary evil, noting that without it the Carolina economy could not survive (which was technically correct). But the convention majority, far from agreeing with anything he said, dismissed his objection out of hand.”

“The Constitution was hardly an antislavery document. Through fierce debates and by means of backroom deals, the lower South slaveholders managed to win compromises that offered some protection to slavery in the states: the notorious three-fifths clause giving an allotment of House seats and Electoral College votes based on a partial counting of enslaved persons; a twenty-year delay in authorizing Congress to abolish the nation’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade; and a fugitive slave clause. Most importantly, the Constitution by implication barred the new federal government from directly interfering with slavery in the states where it already existed.”

“But neither did the Constitution, as Senator Cotton wrongly claims, establish slavery as necessary to the Union. It’s true that a few proslavery delegates threatened that their states would refuse to join the Union unless their demands were met. This occurred with particular force with regard to the Atlantic slave trade. A majority of convention delegates wanted to empower the national government to abolish the horrific trade, striking the first blow against it anywhere in the Atlantic world in the name of a sovereign state. Appalled, the lower South delegates, led by South Carolina’s oligarchs, threatened to bolt if the convention touched the slave trade in any way, but the majority called their bluff.”

“In the end, the proslavery delegates carved out the compromise that prevented abolishing the trade until 1808, salvaging a significant concession, though there could be little doubt that the trade was doomed. Even with this compromise, the leading Pennsylvania abolitionist Benjamin Rush hailed the slave trade clause as ‘a great point obtained from the Southern States.’ His fellow Pennsylvanian and a delegate to convention, James Wilson, went so far as to say that the Constitution laid ‘the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.’”

“History, of course, proved Wilson wrong—but not completely wrong. With the rise of the cotton economy, based on the invention of the cotton gin, which Wilson could not have foreseen, American slavery was far from stymied, but grew to become the mightiest and most expansive slavery regime on earth, engulfing further territories—including Cotton’s own Arkansas.”

“The Framers’ compromises over slavery had little to do with it, however. The problem was not primarily constitutional but political: so long as a substantial number of Northerners remained either complacent about slavery’s future, indifferent to the institution’s oppression, or complicit in the growth of the new cotton kingdom, the Constitution would permit the spread of human bondage.”

“Even so, in fact, the Constitution contained powerful antislavery potential. By refusing to recognize slavery in national law, the Framers gave the national government the power to regulate or ban slavery in areas under its purview, notably the national territories not yet constituted as separate states. The same year that the Framers met, the existing Congress banned slavery from the existing territories north of the Ohio River under the Northwest Ordinance, a measure reflected in the Constitution, which the new Congress quickly affirmed when it met in 1789. Later antislavery champions, including Abraham Lincoln, always considered the Northwest Ordinance to be organic to the Constitution; proslavery advocates came to regard it as an illegitimate nullity.”

“In time, as antislavery sentiment built in the North, the condition of slavery in the territories and in connection with the admission of new states became the major flashpoint of conflict, from the Missouri crisis of 1819–1821 to the guerrilla warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ Proslavery champions like John C. Calhoun of South Carolina invented an argument that denied the Congress any power over slavery in the territories; Lincoln and his fellow Republicans refuted that argument. And upon Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, this constitutional issue was enough to spark the secession that led to the Civil War and Emancipation.”

Senator Cotton has some mistaken things to say about that history, too. The Framers, he asserts, built the Constitution ‘in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.’ This absurdly imputes to the Framers powers of clairvoyance. Although Lincoln sometimes suggested that the Framers had purposefully designed slavery’s abolition—even Lincoln could wishfully exaggerate—the Constitution hardly ensured slavery’s doom. It took Lincoln’s and the antislavery Republicans’ concerted political efforts to vindicate the Constitution’s antislavery elements that set the stage for what Lincoln in his ‘House Divided’ speech of 1858 called ‘ultimate extinction.’”

“Far from establishing a Union based on what Senator Cotton calls the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery, the Founders fought bitterly over human enslavement, producing a document that gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise. The slaveholders, unable to abide that power, eventually seceded in an effort to form a new slaveholders’ republic, with a new Constitution built entirely on slavery: its cornerstone, as the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declaimed, was ‘the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition.’”

“As far as a Union founded on the ‘necessary evil’ of slavery is concerned, Cotton appears unaware of how profoundly the Constitution of the United States of America differed from that of the Confederate States of America.”

Wilentz’ Longer Account of the U.S. History of Slavery[3]

In November 2019, Wilentz, delivering the fourth annual Lecture in honor of Philip Roth, drew upon the novelist’s insight that history was “the relentless unfolding of the unforeseen” or “where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page [of history] as inevitable.” For “the centrality of slavery to American history,” Wilentz says, “the United States was defined, from the start, neither by American slavery alone or by American antislavery but in their conflict” and “few things if any in modern history were more unexpected than the eradication of human bondage in the Atlantic world.”

This was so even though “the ideals that propelled the American Revolution shared crucial origins with the ideals that propelled antislavery. Yet American slavery did not die out as most expected” with “revolutionary America” as a “hotbed of antislavery politics.” In fact, slavery “expanded, turning the American South into the most dynamic and ambitious slavery regime in the world” with “slaveowners [stiffening ] their resolve to affirm their property rights in human beings” and coming “perilously close to establishing an American empire of slavery.”

Conclusion

These ideas of Wilentz help us understand why he and the other four prominent American historians dissented from at least one of the major premises of The Project of 1619, which will be discussed in a future post.[4]

Although I was a history major many years ago at Grinnell College, I do not have the intimate knowledge of the slavery and antislavery conflicts that are discussed by Professor Welentz. Nevertheless, I wonder whether he is overreacting to Senator Cotton’s comment.

The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia convened in 1787 to consider whether and how to amend the existing Articles of Confederation after Alexander Hamilton’s report on the  unsuccessful attempt to do so at the Annapolis Conference of 1786 coupled with his forceful criticism of those Articles and recommendation of the calling of a convention to “render the constitution of the federal government adequate to the exigencies of the union.”[5]

For the first two months or so of the Constitutional Convention there were debates between delegates from large and small states, between those favoring states-rights and those wanting a strong national government. “By the end of June the convention seemed in danger of dissolving, with nothing accomplished.” That, however, was prevented when the Convention accepted a proposal by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut (“the Great Compromise”) for equal representation of the states in the Senate and proportional representation by population in the House. Thereafter other compromises were reached, including counting three-fifths of the slaves for representation in the House.[6]

In other words, many compromises were necessary in order to obtain agreement on the new Constitution before it could be submitted to the states for ratification. Some of those compromises accommodated slavery while others did not. As Wilentz said, the Constitution “gave slavery some protection even as it denied slavery national status and gave the federal government the power to restrict its growth—and so hasten its demise.” In short, compromises with the evil of slavery were necessary in order to create the new Constitution.

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

[1] Evaluation of the Report of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights and Its Endorsement by Secretary Pompeo, dwkcommentaries.com (Aug. 3, 2020);  Senator Cotton Continues Criticism of The 1619 Project, dwkcommenataries.com (Aug. 10, 2020).

[2] Wilentz, What Tom Cotton Gets So Wrong About Slavery and the Constitution, N.Y. Review of Books (Aug. 3, 2020).

[3] Wilentz, American Slavery and ‘the Relentless Unforeseen,’ N.Y. Review of Books (Nov. 19, 2019).

[4]  See Historian Wilentz and New York Times Editor Exchange Views About The 1619 Project, dwkcommentaries.com (forthcoming Aug. –, 2020).

[5] Williams, Current & Freidel, A History of the United States [To 1876], pp. 170-72  (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1959.) (This is my book from college and comments from others with more detailed knowledge of the Constitutional Convention are solicited.)

[6] Id. at 172-77.

President Trump Prepares To Rule By Decree

There are grounds to believe that the Trump Administration is preparing to bypass Congress and attempt to rule by presidential decree on many important issues in the months before this year’s election. We see this in Trump’s comments in his June 19th Fox News interview by Chris Wallace and articles about the Administration’s recent consultations with Professor John Yoo regarding his interpretation of the Supreme Court’s  June 18th decision invalidating the Trump Administration’s 2017 rescission of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.

Trump Comments in Fox News Interview[1]

Near the end of the lengthy Fox News interview of President Trump on July 19, Wallace said that Trump did not yet have a plan to replace Obamacare. Trump disagreed in the following lengthy response:

  • “We’re signing a health care plan within two weeks, a full and complete health care plan that the Supreme Court decision on DACA gave me the right to do. So we are going to . . . sign an immigration plan, a health care plan, and various other plans. And nobody will have done what I’m going to do in the next four weeks. The Supreme Court gave the president of the United States powers that nobody thought the president had, by approving, by doing what they did—their decision on DACA. And DACA’s going to be taken care of also. But we’re getting rid of it because we’re going to replace it with something much better. What we got rid of already, which was most of Obamacare, the individual mandate. And that I’ve already won on. And we won also on the Supreme Court. But the decision by the Supreme Court on DACA allows me to do things on immigration, on health care, on other things that we’ve never done before. And you’re going to find it to be a very exciting two weeks.”

Note that Trump cleverly did not mention John Yoo by name as the legal architect of this strategy.

Wallace apparently was not prepared for this answer, because he had no follow-up questions and instead immediately switched to asking about the Mary Trump book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

.The Supreme Court’s Decision on DACA[2]

The Court in a 5-4 Opinion by Chief Justice Roberts invalidated the 2017 decision by the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Elaine C. Duke, to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) because that termination was “arbitrary and capricious” even though the Attorney General had determined that the DACA program was illegal. The defects in the DHS termination decision, said the Court, were failure to recognize that the defining feature of DACA was deferring removal of DACA recipients from the U.S. and the failure to assess “the existence and strength of any reliance interests” on that deferral by  DACA recipients.

Therefore, the only valid way for the DHS to terminate the DACA program, said the Court, was to proceed under the cumbersome Administrative Procedure Act.

Mr. Justice Thomas in his dissenting opinion for himself and Justices Alito and Gorsuch, said, “DHS created DACA during the Obama administration without any statutory authorization and without going through the requisite rulemaking process. As a result, the program was unlawful from its inception. The majority does not even attempt to explain why a court has the authority to scrutinize an agency’s policy reasons for rescinding an unlawful program under the arbitrary and capricious microscope. The decision to countermand an unlawful agency action is clearly reasonable. So long as the agency’s determination of illegality is sound, our review should be at an end.”

Moreover, said Mr. Justice Thomas, “Today’s decision must be recognized for what it is: an effort to avoid a politically controversial but legally correct decision. The Court could have made clear that the solution respondents seek must come from the Legislative Branch. Instead, the majority has decided to prolong DHS’ initial overreach by providing a stopgap measure of its own. In doing so, it has given the green light for future political battles to be fought in this Court rather than where they rightfully belong—the political branches. Such timidity forsakes the Court’s duty to apply the law according to neutral principles, and the ripple effects of the majority’s error will be felt throughout our system of self-government.”

Yoo’s Interpretation of That Supreme Court Case[3]

Yoo, the Emmanuel S. Heller Professor of Law and Director of the Public Law & Policy Program at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, believes that the Supreme Court’s opinion is erroneous. In Yoo’s words, the opinion “upends the text, structure, and history of the Constitution, which generally prevents the occupants of a branch of government (who are temporary, after all) from binding their successors. . . . When a president wants to repeal an executive order, all he need do is issue a new executive order. . . . Recognizing a plenary power to reverse previous acts, contrary to the Supreme court’s DACA rule, comports best with the purposes behind the creation of the executive branch.”

Nevertheless, under this recent Supreme Court decision, in what may have intended as a reductio ad absurdum, Yoo said, “ presidents, including President Trump, may now stop enforcing laws they dislike, hand out permits or benefits that run contrary to acts of Congress and prevent their successors from repealing their policies for several years.” Thus, Trump, for example, could decline “to enforce the tax laws, and economic regulations . . . issue permits allowing federally financed or regulated construction project fully s to go forward . . . [and] defer action under environmental laws.”

In any event, we need an attorney knowledgeable about constitutional and federal administrative law to analyze and critique Yoo’s analysis of this Supreme Court opinion.

Trump Consultations with John Yoo[4]

We now have evidence that President Trump and others in the White House have been consulting with Yoo about this subject.

At least that is what Professor Yoo said to Julian Borger, the author of an article in the Guardian of London on these issues. There also are reports by Axios that “President Trump and top White House officials are privately considering a controversial strategy to act without legal authority to enact new federal policies-starting with immigration,” that a copy of Yoo’s article on the subject in the National Review was “spotted atop Trump’s desk in the Oval Office” and that “White House thinking is being heavily influenced by John Yoo.’”

Reactions[5]

 Yoo’s interpretation of this case was called “indefensible” by constitutional lawyer and  professor Laurence Tribe with these additional comments. “I fear that this lawless administration will take full advantage of the fact that judicial wheels grind slowly and that it will be difficult to keep up with the many ways Trump, aided and abetted by Bill Barr as attorney general and Chad Wolf as acting head of homeland security, can usurp congressional powers and abridge fundamental rights in the immigration space in particular but also in matters of public health and safety.”

Of the same opinion is Alka Pradhan, a Lecturer in Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and defense counsel in the 9/11 terrorism cases against inmates in the Guantánamo Bay prison camp. She said, “John Yoo’s so-called reasoning has always been based on ‘What can the president get away with?’ rather than ‘What is the purpose and letter of the law?’ That is not legal reasoning, it’s inherently tyrannical and anti-democratic.”

In the New Republic, Matt Ford has a more extensive analysis. He says Yoo has “a disfigured reading” of the DACA case. In Ford’s opinion, “The Supreme Court did not explicitly rule that DACA itself was legal or illegal last month, only that Trump’s efforts to reverse it violated the Administrative Procedure Act, a federal law that sets out how executive agencies write new rules and regulations. Roberts, writing for the court, concluded that the Department of Homeland Security ran afoul of the APA by not providing enough justification for its sweeping move. ‘We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies. The wisdom of those decisions is none of our concern,’ the Chief Justice wrote. ‘We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action.’”

In addition, Matt Ford asserts, “Yoo’s Trumpian turn is far from surprising. In both government service and academic life, he has advanced an untrammeled vision of executive power that brushes aside most constraints imposed upon presidents by Congress or international law. His highest-profile work came during George W. Bush’s first term in office, when he worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to other parts of the executive branch. In that role, Yoo helped draft a series of memos that effectively authorized torture of terrorism suspects and justified warrantless surveillance of Americans, arguing that the president’s wartime powers trumped almost all other constraints.”

Those memos by Yoo and Jay Bybee, says Ford, were castigated in 2009 as “professional misconduct” by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which conclusion was rejected the next year by a senior official at the Department with this comment: “While I have declined to adopt OPR’s findings of misconduct, I fear that John Yoo’s loyalty to his own ideology and convictions clouded his view of his obligation to his client and led him to author opinions that reflected his own extreme, albeit sincerely held, view of executive power while speaking for an institutional client.”

Matt Ford also notes that Yoo’s new book, Defender in Chief, is about to be published. According to its publisher, “Far from considering Trump an inherent threat to our nation’s founding principles, Yoo convincingly argues that Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Hamilton would have seen Trump as returning to their vision of presidential power, even at his most controversial. It is instead liberal opponents who would overthrow existing constitutional understanding in order to unseat Trump, but in getting their man would inflict permanent damage on the office of the presidency, the most important office in our constitutional system and the world.”[6]

Finally Matt Ford sees President Trump’s July 21st executive order excluding undocumented immigrants from the executive branch’s report to Congress on this year’s census  as a sign “that the White House is embracing Yoo’s mutilated logic.” This executive order, says Ford, contradicts the Constitution’s providing that members of the House of Representatives “are allotted according to ‘the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.’ Since Congress automatically granted citizenship to all Native Americans by 1924, the ‘whole number of persons’ now truly means the whole number.” This conclusion was unanimously affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court four years ago, but was ignored by this executive order and by President Trump’s July 21st statement that excluding undocumented immigrants from the report to Congress “reflects a better understanding of the Constitution and is consistent with the principles of our representative democracy.”[7]

It also should be noted that these latest moves by Yoo contradict what he said in February 2017, one month after Trump’s inauguration. Then Yoo had “grave concerns about Mr. Trump’s uses of presidential power” and was troubled by “little sign that he understood the constitutional roles  of the three branches.” Unless he changed, Yoo said, “our new president will spend his days overreacting to the latest events, dissipating his political capital and haphazardly wasting the executive’s powers.”[8]

Conclusion

 As an opponent of the re-election of Donald Trump, I believe he knows he is far behind Biden in nearly all the polls and needs to change his campaign message. I, therefore, believe that he will do what he mentioned in the Fox News interview and will argue that he is doing many things to meet the problems and challenges facing the U.S.

Be on guard, citizens and the Biden campaign!

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

[1] Fox News, Transcript: ‘Fox News Sunday’ interview with President Trump (pp. 17-18), foxnews.com (July 19, 2020); Borger, Trump consults Bush torture lawyer on how to skirt law and rule by decree, Guardian (July 20, 2020); Marcus, Trump wants to be king. Did John Yoo just hand him the crown?, Wash. Post (July 21, 2020).

[2] Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, No. 18-587 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 18, 2020.

[3] Yoo, How the Supreme Court’s DACA Decision Harms the Constitution, the Presidency, Congress, and the Country, National Review (June 22, 2020); Yoo, How Trump Can Weaponize the DACA Decision and Cut Taxes, Newsweek (June 24, 2020): Treene & Kight, Scoop: Trump’s license to skirt the law, Axios (July 19, 2020); Borger, supra; Marcus, supra. Ford, John Yoo’s Twisted Path to Trumpism, New Republic (the Soapbox) (July 22, 2020). https://newrepublic.com/article/158589/john-yoo-twisted-path-trumpism

[4] Treene & Kight, supra; Borger, supra; Marcus, supra.

[5] Borger, supra; Marcus, supra; Ford, supra.

[6] Macmillan, Defender in Chief: Donald Trump’s Fight for Presidential Power (2020).

[7]  White House, Memorandum on Excluding Illegal Aliens From the Apportionment Base Following the 2020 Census (July 21, 2020); White House, Statement from the President Regarding Apportionment (July 21, 2020); White House, President Donald J. Trump Is Taking Action to Ensure American Citizens Receive Proper Representation in Congress (July 21, 2020); Rogers & Baker, Trump Seeks to Stop Counting Unauthorized Immigrants in Drawing House Districts, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2020).

[8] Yoo, Executive Power Run Amok, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

 

Congress Fails To Pass Federal Police Reform Bills   

On June 24 and 25, the divisions between the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate and the Democrat-controlled U.S. House again emerged, this time to prevent, in all likelihood, the adoption of any federal police reform bills this year.

U.S. Senate[1]

On June 24 the Senate was prepared to debate The Justice Act, a bill authored by Senator Tim Scott (Rep., SC), that would encourage state and local police departments to change their practices, by limiting the use of chokeholds, requiring new de-escalation training for officers and better systems for tracking misconduct  and penalizing departments that did not require the use of body cameras. It, however,  would not alter the qualified immunity doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits or place new federal restrictions on the use of lethal force.

The Senate Democrats criticized this bill as insufficient to respond to the problem of systemic racism in law enforcement as the basis for an objection to consideration of the bill. This forced a motion for consideration that, under Senate rules, needs at least 60 votes to pass, but only had 55 votes with Democrats Doug Jones of Alabama and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Independent Angus King of Maine joining 52 Republicans. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Rep., Tenn.) voted against that motion so that subsequently he could make a motion for reconsideration by announcing his intent to switch his vote.

After this defeat, Senator Scott stated on the floor that he had had offered to give Democrats as many as 20 votes on proposed modifications to his bill that they were demanding, but that they had refused to accept. Privately, Democrats noted that revising the bill would have also required the approval of 60 senators, a threshold they feared they would not be able to meet.

It is still possible that the Scott bill could be brought up again this year in the Senate by the Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell switching his vote from “Yes” to “No” on a motion for reconsideration.

In the meantime, on June 25 the Senate by unanimous consent separately passed a provision of Mr. Scott’s bill to establish a commission on the social status of black men and boys, tasked with recommending policies to improve government programs.

U.S. House[2]

 On June 25, the U.S. House passed, 236-181, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

Representative Karen Bass (Dem., CA), the lead sponsor of the bill, said, “The legislation is the first-ever bold, comprehensive approach to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement, empower our communities, and build trust between law enforcement and our communities by addressing systemic racism and bias to help save lives. Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-CA), Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 on June 8, 2020. The legislation has 231 cosponsors in the House and 36 cosponsors in the Senate.”

“Under the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, for the first time ever federal law would: 1) ban chokeholds; 2) end racial and religious profiling; 3) eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement;[3] 4) establish national standard for the operation of police departments; 5) mandate data collection on police encounters; 6) reprogram existing funds to invest in transformative community-based policing programs; and 7) streamline federal law to prosecute excessive force and establish independent prosecutors for police investigations.”  In greater detail, the Act:

  • “Prohibits federal, state, and local law enforcement from racial, religious and discriminatory profiling, and mandates training on racial, religious, and discriminatory profiling for all law enforcement.
  • Bans chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants at the federal level and limits the transfer of military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement.
  • Mandates the use of dashboard cameras and body cameras for federal offices and requires state and local law enforcement to use existing federal funds to ensure the use of police body cameras.
  • Establishes a National Police Misconduct Registry to prevent problematic officers who are fired or leave on agency from moving to another jurisdiction without any accountability.
  • Amends federal criminal statute from “willfulness” to a “recklessness” standard to successfully identify and prosecute police misconduct.
  • Reforms qualified immunity so that individuals are not barred from recovering damages when police violate their constitutional rights.
  • Establishes public safety innovation grants for community-based organizations to create local commissions and task forces to help communities to re-imagine and develop concrete, just and equitable public safety approaches.
  • Creates law enforcement development and training programs to develop best practices and requires the creation of law enforcement accreditation standard recommendations based on President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century policing.
  • Requires state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data, disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, age.
  • Improves the use of pattern and practice investigations at the federal level by granting the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division subpoena power and creates a grant program for state attorneys general to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments.
  • Establishes a Department of Justice task force to coordinate the investigation, prosecution and enforcement efforts of federal, state and local governments in cases related to law enforcement misconduct.”

It would make lynchings a federal hate crime, ban federal officials from using chokeholds, ban federal funds to state and local law enforcement agencies that do not bar chokeholds, bar law enforcement from racial and religious profiling, make it easier to prosecute police officers for misconduct and allow civilians to recover some damages if their constitutional rights are found to have been violated by police, a change to the judicial doctrine known as qualified immunity.

It should be noted that three Republican representatives voted for this bill: Brian Fitzpatrick (PA), Will Hurd (TX) and Fred Upton (MI).

 Conclusion

As a Democrat you supports various means of reforming policing in the U.S., I am disappointed that the Congress was unable to agree on such measures.

However, I think it was a political mistake for the Senate Democrats to block consideration of the Senator Tim Scott reform bill. As I understand what happened in the Senate, the Democrats had no objections to the bill’s provisions. Instead, they objected that the bill did not go far enough. Their objections could have been made during the debate on the Scott bill, with or without proposed amendments that probably would be defeated by the Republican majority. Moreover, by allowing the Republicans to approve the bill would allow the Democrats to provide political support to Republican Senator Tim Scott.

This assessment was shared by Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, a Fox News contributor and a Washington Post columnist,  He emphasized that stopping such a debate in the Senate eliminated the possibility of having such a discussion in that body for the foreseeable future and even the possibility of having some Democratic amendments adopted. Thiessen claims that the bill already included some Democratic proposed additions: making lynching a federal hate crime, creating a national policing commission to review the U.S. criminal justice system, barring chokeholds by federal officers, withholding federal funds from state and local law enforcement agencies that do not bar chokeholds and that do not report use of non-knock warrants to the U.S. Justice Department. Indeed, according to Thiessen, Senator Scott had said he would vote to support  some of the proposed amendments.[4]

Such a Democratic strategy also would have avoided the embarrassing comment by Senator Richard Durbin (Dem., IL) that the Scott bill was “a token, half-hearted approach,” by an African-American man who personally had experienced police discrimination that compelled the subsequent apology from Senator Durbin.

Moreover, the Democrat-controlled House the next day adopted the more comprehensive reform bill which they wanted and which the Republican-controlled Senate undoubtedly will reject when it goes there.

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

[1] U.S. Senate, Justice Act, 116th Congress, 2d Sess. (full text); U.S. Senate, JUSTICE Act (Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere): Section-by-Section Analysis,  116th Congress, 2d Sess.; Senator Scott, Press Release: Senator Tim Scott Delivers Fiery Speech on Senate floor After Senate Democrats Stonewall Legislation on Police Reform Across America (June 24, 2020); Senator Scott, Press Release: Senate Democrats Block Police Reform from Coming to Communities Across America (June 24, 2020); Edmondson & Fandos, Senate G.O.P. Unveils Narrow Policing Bill, Setting Up a Clash with Democrats, N.Y. Times (June 17 & 24, 2020); Edmondson, Senate Democrats Block G.O.P. Police bill, calling It Inadequate, N.Y.Times (June 24, 2020); Kim, Senate Democrats block GOP policing bill, stalling efforts to change law enforcement practices, Wash. Post (June 24, 2020); Balko, Both parties’ police reform bills ae underwhelming. Here’s why, Wash. Post (June 24, 2020); Peterson & Zitner, Senate Democrats Block GOP Policing Bill, W.S.J. (June 24, 2020); Editorial, The No Debate Democrats, W.S.J. (June 24, 2020); Bobi, Police Reform Stalls Out in The Senate, HuffPost (June 24, 2020).

[2] Representative Bass, Press Release: House Passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (June 25, 2020); George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (full text);  Congressional Black Caucus, Fact Sheet: George Floyd Justice in Policing Act ; House Passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, N.Y. Times (June 25, 2020); Andrews, House Passes Democrats’ Policing Bill, but No Path Seen for Deal, W.S.J. (June 25, 2020); Carney, Gridlock mires chances of police reform bill, The Hill (June 25, 2020); Brufke, Three GOP lawmakers vote for Democrat-led police reform bill, The Hill (June 25, 2020).

[3] The qualified immunity defense was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Monell v. Department of Social Services (1978) that victims can’t recover damages from the city under the Civil Rights Act of 1871 unless the police misconduct was a breach of an “official policy or custom.” Subsequent Supreme Court cases have reaffirmed that standard to limit liability to “the plainly incompetent” and “those who knowingly violate the law.” (Malley v. Briggs (1986); Mccleary v. Navarro (1982), and just this month the Court refused to hear current cases challenging that standard. (Reuters, Supreme Court Rejects Cases Over ‘Qualified Immunity’ for Police, N.Y. times (June 15, 2020).)  As Peter Schuck, a professor emeritus at Yale Law School, pointed out, a simple amendment of that 1871 statute would eliminate this defense. (Schuck, The Other Police Immunity Problem, W.S.J. (June 24, 2020).) 

[4] Theissen, Democrats’ shameful vote against Tim Scott’s police reform bill, Wash. Post (June 25, 2020).

 

Responses to Ezra Klein’s Democratization Thesis

A prior post reviewed the recent Ezra Klein column (and related book) that argued for “reducing the polarization of American politics by democratization, including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” https://dwkcommentaries.com/2020/02/14/u-s-needs-more-democratization/

Two respected political commentators–Norman J. Ornstein, a noted author and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Ross Douthat, a self-proclaimed conservative New York Times columnist–have discussed the Klein book, which was the basis for his column.

Norman Ornstein[1]

The Klein book cites research by political scientists showing that split ticket voting in presidential and congressional elections has virtually disappeared, that self-proclaimed independents now vote more predictably for one party over another and that such voters are now more motivated by their antipathy for the other party rather than affinity for their own. Related to all of this is the emergence of political mega-identities: “Republicans have become more cultlike and resistant to compromise or moderation” while “Democrats have an immune system of diversity and democracy.”

Ornstein also endorses Klein’s opinion that “baked into the political system devised by our framers is an increasing bias toward geography and away from people. As the country becomes more diverse, the representation and power in our politics will grow even less reflective of that dynamism. . . . At some point, the fundamental legitimacy of the system will be challenged.”

Therefore, in the book, Klein calls for eliminating the Electoral College and the Senate filibuster, allowing Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia to become states and taking steps to make the House of Representatives more reflective of the country. “Of course, even these measures , commendable though they may be, are a very heavy lift.”

Ross Douthat[2]

Douthat also takes on the more expansive statement of Ezra Klein’s opinions in his book, “Why We’re Polarized.”  [1]

This book, says Douthat, correctly debunks the theory that “the cure for division is just to educate people about the Right Answers to complicated policy disputes.”

Then Douthat counters Klein by relying on two other recent books, Christopher Caldwell’s “Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” and Michael Lind’s “The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite.” 

According to Douthat, Caldwell, another conservative author and New York Times contributing opinion writer,  sees the current polarization as due to the 1960’s reformers creating “through the Civil Rights Act, a structure of judicial and bureaucratic supervision and redress that gradually expanded into a rival constitutional system. This so-called  ‘Second Constitution’ is organized around the advancement of groups claiming equality, not the protection of citizens enjoying liberties. And so the claims these groups make must be privileged over and against both the normal legislative process and the freedoms of speech and religion and association that the original Constitution protects.”

Lind’s book, says Douthat, sees the current polarization as “the consolidation of economic power by a ‘managerial’ upper class'” and the resulting weakening of “any institution — from churches and families to union shops and local industries — that might grant real power to groups outside the gilded city, the Silicon Valley bubble, the Ivy League gate.” This phenomenon coupled with libertarianism of Regan and Thacher promoted “economic and social permissiveness . . . [and] a new class divide, between thriving meritocratic hubs and a declining and demoralized heartland, . . . [that] explains both the frequency of populist irruptions and their consistent futility.”

The above two books, however, in Douthat’s opinion, fail to acknowledge the importance of the “secularization and institutional-Christian decline” and resulting religious polarization as important trends contributing to polarization. which Douthat will address in a future column.

Note that Douthat does not address Klein’s point about American polarization being connected with the structure of American government giving greater weight to geographical units than to the number of people.

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

[1] Ornstein, Why America’s Political Divisions Will Only Get Worse, N.Y. Times Book Review (Feb. 9, 2020).

[2] Douthat, The Many Polarizations of America, N.Y. Times (Jan. 28, 2020).

 

U.S. Needs More Democratization

A New York Times article by Ezra Klein makes a strong argument for the United States needing more democratization in order to depolarize American politics.[1]

He starts this analysis with the assertion that the current polarization of U.S. politics is due to ideological changes: “the Democratic Party has moved left, and the Republican Party has moved right. But more fundamentally, those changes are compositional: Democrats have become more diverse, urban, young and secular, and the Republican Party has turned itself into a vehicle for whiter, older, more Christian and more rural voters.”

As a result, “Democrats can’t win running the kinds of campaigns and deploying the kinds of tactics that succeed for Republicans. . . . [Democrats] can move to the left — and they are — but they can’t abandon the center or, given the geography of American politics, the center-right, and still hold power. Democrats are modestly, but importantly, restrained by diversity and democracy. Republicans are not.”

In addition, the two parties’ voters differ in what sources of information they respect and listen to. Democrats trusted “22 of the 30 sources, including center-right outlets like The Wall Street Journal. Republicans trusted only seven of the 30 sources, with PBS, the BBC and The Wall Street Journal the only mainstream outlets with significant trust.” (The other trusted sources, for Republicans were, big surprise, Fox News, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart.)

Even though Democrats have won the recent total popular vote in elections for the U.S. presidency, the U.S. Senate and the U.S.House of Representatives, the Republicans currently control the presidency, the Senate and a majority of governorships. This is due to the structure of the U.S. government which “counts states and districts rather than people, and the G.O.P.’s more rural coalition has a geographic advantage that offsets its popular disadvantage.”

This Republican advantage, however, may be temporary.  Republicans “represent a shrinking constituency that holds vast political power. That has injected an almost manic urgency into their strategy. Behind the party’s tactical extremism lurks an apocalyptic sense of political stakes.”

Klein, therefore, concludes that “one of the few real hopes for depolarizing American politics is democratization,” including “proportional representation and campaign finance reform; . . .[making] voter registration automatic and. . . [giving] Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico the political representation they deserve.” This would compel the Republican Party to become a “more moderate and diverse party.” However, “precisely because the Republican Party sees deepening democracy as a threat to its future, it will use the power it holds to block any moves in that direction.”

Without such changes, Klein argues, the U.S. will face “ a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system. By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.”

Conclusion

Klein is right to call for the need for more democratization of the U.S. electoral system.

But while mentioning the U.S. system’s favoring land and districts over people, he does not attack directly those features that do just that: the Electoral College for electing the U.S. president, the allocation of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population and state legislatures creating the boundaries for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, this would require amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which may be next to impossible, but they should be mentioned.

Alex Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board, however, points out one facet of the  Electoral College: whether the individuals selected by the political parties are legally obligated to vote for that party’s successful candidate in the popular election when the 536 electors meet about six weeks after the popular election. Indeed, that very issue is now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court in two related cases from the federal appellate court in Colorado and a state court in Washington State. In the federal case, the court held that the founders clearly intended for electors to act independently and vote according to their consciences, not to the dictates of any political party. Once a state appoints an elector, the lower court said, its power over that elector ends. They cannot punish someone, or replace him or her, for voting a certain way. This issue, says Wegman, raises the more important question, why do we have to have the Electoral College?[2]

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

[1] Klein, Why Democrats Still Have to Appeal to the Center, N. Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020). Klein is an American journalist, blogger, and political commentator who co-founded Vox, where he is currently editor-at-large. He was previously a blogger and columnist for The Washington Post and an associate editor of The American Prospect. He has served as a contributor to Bloomberg News and MSNBC. (Ezra Klein, Wikipedia.)

[2] Wegman, Why Do We Have an Electoral College, Again?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2020).

 

 

U.S. House Hearing on U.S. Policy Towards Cuba  

On September 6, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee held a hearing on U.S. policy on Cuba.[1]

The subcommittee heard from the  following five witnesses, the first four of whom were from the  State Department and the last (Mr. Mazanec) from the U.S. Government Accountability Office: (1) Kenneth H. Merten, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; (2) Peter Bodde, Coordinator, Health Incidents Response Task Force; (3) Charles Rosenfarb, M.D., Medical Director, Bureau of Medical Services; (4) Todd Brown, Assistant Director for Countermeasures, Bureau of Diplomatic Security; and (5) Brian M. Mazanec, Ph. D.

Since the audio recording of the hearing is virtually impossible to hear, the following are the highlights of the prepared and printed statements of two of the witnesses and the brief comments from the Washington Post article.

Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Merten

Human Rights. The Department continues to monitor “human rights developments in Cuba and actively engages with members of Cuban civil society. . . . The Department and USAID also continue to administer U.S. government funded programs to promote democracy and support the critical work of human rights defenders on the island. . . . we regularly speak out against the regime for repression and abuse and raise these concerns directly with the Cuban government.

Cuban Economy. The State Department’s “Cuba Restricted List . . . identifies entities and subentities with which direct financial transactions would disproportionately benefit Cuban military, intelligence, or security services or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people or private enterprise. . . . [It seeks to ] redirect economic activity that once supported the Cuban military toward the Cuban private sector and Cuban people.”

The Department’s Cuba Internet Task force. It is charged to “develop recommendations on 1) the role of media and unregulated flow of information to Cuba and 2) expanding internet access in Cuba” and is scheduled to complete its work by June 2019.

Promoting Stability and Prosperity. The Department has “1) reviewed democracy programs in Cuba to ensure they align with the criteria set forth in the LIBERTAD Act; 2) provided a report to the President detailing the Cuban regime’s human rights abuses against the Cuban people and its lack of progress towards a “transition government” as described in the LIBERTAD Act; 3) provided a report to the President on bilateral engagement with Cuba to ensure it advances U.S. interests; 4) took a stand at the UN against Cuban anti-embargo propaganda; and 5) continues to work with the Department of Homeland Security to discourage dangerous, unlawful migration that puts Cuban and American lives at risk.”

“Health Attacks” on U.S. Personnel.  Merten reminded the subcommittee that “the Department first became aware of these health complaints and an increase in Cuban harassment in late December 2016, [bit] it was not until months later, after highly specialized medical testing was performed and analyzed by experts, that we began to understand the spectrum of severity and confirm the extent of the health effects. That confirmation indicated that these incidents went beyond routine harassment previously experienced by U.S. diplomats in Havana.”

He then stressed that  the “Department does not currently know the mechanism for the cause of the injuries, the motive behind these attacks in Cuba, when they actually commenced, or who is responsible.” (Emphasis added.)

He also emphasized that the U.S. Government was committed to long-term support for the affected personnel.

He mentioned that Secretary of State Pompeo has established an Accountability Review Board that had submitted its report on June 7 and that the Secretary has accepted all of its recommendations.

 Dr. Rosenfarb

“We’re seeing a unique syndrome. I can’t even call it a syndrome. It’s a unique constellation of symptoms and findings, but with no obvious cause,” testified Dr. Rosenfarb.

 Dr. Mazane

His prepared statement summarized the GAO’s July 30, 2018 report (released on September 6) that reviewed the State Department’s management of these health incidents and made recommendations for improvements in same.

Conclusion

 This blog previously has criticized the U.S. so-called democracy promotion activities in Cuba and the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force because they are unilateral attempts to impose U.S. values on Cuba. Instead, this blog has advocated for the U.S. attempting to develop such programs with the cooperation of the Cuban government. This blog also has also called for the U.S. to ends its embargo of Cuba.[2]

A future post will discuss the latest developments regarding U.S. diplomats who have had medical problems arising from their being stationed in Havana.

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

[1] U.S. House Rep., Foreign Affairs Comm., Western Hemisphere Subcomm., U.S. Policy Toward Cuba (Sept. 6, 2018); Kaplan & Ashenbach, Scientists and doctors zap theory that microwave weapon injured Cuban diplomats, Wash. Post (Sept. 6, 2018).

[2] See the following sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA: U.S. Embargo of Cuba, Cuban Human Rights, Cuban Economy, U.S. Diplomats Medical Problems in Cuba and U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force.

 

 

Senate Passes Bill To Expand Agricultural Exports to Cuba  

On June 28, the U.S. Senate passed, 86-11, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R.2) that relates, in part,  to U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.[1]

After an amendment introduced by Senators Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and Boozman (Rep., AR) to allow for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to conduct foreign market development programs in Cuba passed the Senate Agriculture Committee by unanimous consent on June 13, Senator Rubio (Rep., FL) expressed his opposition to the provision and a willingness to delay consideration of the full bill.[2]

Rubio first introduced an amendment on June 26 to deny export promotion until Cuba holds “free and fair elections for a new government,” but by June 27,  he had changed his approach. Speaking on the Senate floor, he said, “I am not going to object to the ability of American farmers to market our products to a market… But while you are there… you can promote it, but you just can’t spend any of these taxpayer dollars at any of the facilities or businesses controlled or owned by the Cuban military.”

Ultimately, after negotiation between Senators Rubio, Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Cruz (Rep., TX), on one side, and Senators Flake (Rep., AZ), Heitkamp, and Boozman on the other, the bill passed the Senate with the USDA export promotion provision intact, and a modifying provision that states financial transactions must adhere to restrictions set out in current regulations, including a prohibition on “transactions with entities owned, controlled, or operated by or on behalf of military intelligence or security services of Cuba.” Most U.S. entities are already barred from engaging in transactions with the businesses on this list.[3]

The bill on June 21 had passed the House, 213-211. The Senate and House versions will now go to a conference committee to try to iron out the differences.[4]

Obviously Rubio’s efforts to impose his anti-Cuba positions on everything failed this time although he publicly will never admit to such a defeat. Instead he proclaims his qualification to promotion of trade with Cuba as a victory.

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

[1] Carney, Senate passes mammoth farm bill, The Hill (June 28, 2018).

[2] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief: 06/29/2018.

[3] Rubio Supports Farm Bill with Important Provisions for Florida Citrus and Agriculture (June 28, 2018).

[4] Library of Congress: Thomas, H.R.2-Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018.

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).