Senator Jeff Flake’s Courageous Defense of American Values and Democracy

On October 24  U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) gave a moving speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate rejecting President Trump’s character and actions and announcing the senator’s decision to not seek re-election in 2018.  He simultaneously extended his thoughts in the Washington Post, which commended him for his words and actions. I immediately sent him a letter thanking him for his speech and for his advocacy of U.S.-Cuba normalization, and on November 6 Senator Flake made a public response to the many letters he has received about his speech. Here is a summary of these events.

Senator Flake’s Speech[1]

The Senator said, “I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret, because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics, regret because of the indecency of our discourse, regret because of the coarseness of our leadership, regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our – all of our – complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.” Below is a photograph of Senator Flake giving his speech.

“We must never regard as ‘normal’ the regular and casual undermining of our democratic norms and ideals. We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country – the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions, the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.”

“Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as ‘telling it like it is,’ when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else: It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength – because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit, and weakness.”

If I have been critical, it is not because I relish criticizing the behavior of the president of the United States.  If I have been critical, it is because I believe that it is my obligation to do so, as a matter of duty and conscience. The notion that one should stay silent as the norms and values that keep America strong are undermined and as the alliances and agreements that ensure the stability of the entire world are routinely threatened by the level of thought that goes into 140 characters – the notion that one should say and do nothing in the face of such mercurial behavior is ahistoric and, I believe, profoundly misguided.”

“The principles that underlie our politics, the values of our founding, are too vital to our identity and to our survival to allow them to be compromised by the requirements of politics. Because politics can make us silent when we should speak, and silence can equal complicity. I have children and grandchildren to answer to, and so, Mr. President, I will not be complicit.”

Senator Flake’s Washington Post Article[2]

The same day as his speech, Senator Flake wrote an op-ed article in the Washington Post. He opened with a reference to one of my heroes, Joseph Welch, and his famous 1954 rhetorical question to Senator Joseph McCarthy who was attacking a young colleague of Welch: ““You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”[3]

In so doing, said Flake, “Someone had finally spoken up and said: Enough. . . . Welch reawakened the conscience of the country. The moment was a shock to the system, a powerful dose of cure for an American democracy that was questioning its values during a time of global tumult and threat. We had temporarily forgotten who we were supposed to be.”

Flake continued, “We face just such a time now. We have again forgotten who we are supposed to be. There is a sickness in our system — and it is contagious.”

“Nine months of this administration is enough for us to stop pretending that this is somehow normal, and that we are on the verge of some sort of pivot to governing, to stability. Nine months is more than enough for us to say, loudly and clearly: Enough.”

“The outcome of this is in our hands. We can no longer remain silent, merely observing this train wreck, passively, as if waiting for someone else to do something. The longer we wait, the greater the damage, the harsher the judgment of history.”

“It’s time we all say: Enough.”

 Washington Post’s Editorial[4]

The Washington Post immediately published an editorial that said the speech “was profoundly eloquent in its diagnosis of the degradation that President Trump has brought to American politics. It was also profoundly depressing. If Republicans can be honest only after they have taken themselves out of the political arena — or if by being honest they disqualify themselves from future service — then their party and therefore the nation are in even graver trouble than we knew.”

My Thank You Letter

“As a fellow U.S. citizen, I thank you for your speech yesterday on the Senate Floor. You spoke the truth about the serious challenges facing our country by the character and conduct of Donald Trump as president. You correctly pointed out that you did not want to be complicit in that conduct by remaining silent although with your recent book and other comments you hardly have remained silent.”

“I also thank you for your strong support of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation and normalization, and I know you have visited the island many times. As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, I personally have been involved over the last 15 years with our partnership with a small Presbyterian-Reformed Church in the city of Matanzas and have been on three of our mission trips to the island and have welcomed Cubans visiting our church. This has led to my writing extensively on this subject and advocating such reconciliation and normalization on my blog.”

“As you well know, in recent months U.S.-Cuba relations have been troubled by medical problems experienced by some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed In Havana, about which I have written blog posts. I am amazed that after many months of investigations by the U.S. (and Cuba) the U.S. continues to assert that it does not know who or how these medical problems were created. I also am amazed that I have not discovered anyone who is wondering whether they were created by a secret and malfunctioning U.S. program or device. Perhaps this is something you could question in the Senate.”

Senator Flake’s Response to Letters[5]

“By the electronic bushel, in thousands of calls and letters, reactions have poured into my office.] Some wrote just to say thanks. From Arizona, from all over the country and from abroad. From all across the political map, too.”

This was a “deeply personal outpouring, the scale of which has stunned and humbled me. . . . I can say that reading these letters has been one of the most humbling experiences of my public life. . . . I am humbled because until now I didn’t fully grasp the level of anxiety and real pain that exists across the country due to the state of our national leadership.”

“These writers despair not just for the chaos emanating from the White House, but for the moral vandalism that has been set loose in our culture, as well as the seeming disregard for the institutions of American democracy. The damage to our democracy seems to come daily now, most recently with the president’s venting late last week that if he had his way, he would hijack the American justice system to conduct political prosecutions — a practice that only happens in the very worst places on earth. And as this behavior continues, it is not just our politics being disfigured, but the American sense of well-being and time-honored notions of the common good.”

 “I have been powerfully reminded that we have all been raised with fidelity to a very large idea, the American idea. When that idea comes under threat, and it seems as if the center might not hold, it is not just our politics that suffers. When a leader wreaks havoc with our democratic norms, it is not just political Washington that is dragged through the muck. When that happens, it is deeply upsetting to people everywhere, almost existentially so, and we all suffer.”

“These extraordinary and patriotic voices, calling me and themselves to action in defense of the things we hold dear, remind me that to have a vital democracy, there can be no bystanders.” I now “realize that to stand up and speak out is sometimes the most conservative thing a citizen can do.”

Conclusion

I urge my fellow U.S. citizens to join in the commendation of Senator Flake for his outspoken defense of true American values and to call for the resignation or removal of Donald Trump from office under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

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[1]   U.S. Senate, Flake Announces Senate Future ( Oct. 24, 2017); Full Transcript: Jeff Flake’s Speech on the Senate Floor, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 2017).

[2]  Flake, Enough, Wash. Post, (Oct. 24, 2017).

[3] An inverse historical example for Senator Flake’s criticisms of President Trump is President Eisenhower’s behind-the-scenes campaign to destroy his fellow Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, which  is the subject of David A. Nichols’ Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy (Simon & Schuster 2017).

[4] Editorial, Jeff Flake’s Diagnosis is right. But it’s not enough, Wash. Post (Oct. 24, 2017)

[5] Jeff Flake: In a Democracy, There Can Be No Bystanders, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2017).

The Improper Use of Senate Rule XIX To Stop Senator Warren from Speaking

As has been widely reported, the U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (Rep., KY), on February 7 asserted an objection to the remarks of Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem., MA) and the objection was sustained by the presiding officer, Senator Steve Dawes (Rep., MT), and by the entire Senate, 49-43. As a result, Senator Warren was prevented from making any further remarks.

This occurred during the Senate’s consideration of whether to confirm the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General when Senator Warren was reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King, the widow of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., complaining about Session as a U.S. attorney for allegedly “using the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black Americans.”

The asserted basis for the objection by McConnell was Senate Rule XIX, which states, “No Senator, in debate, shall “directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”

This Rule rarely has been used since its adoption in 1902 after a fist-fight on the Senate floor between two senators over whether the Senate would approve a U.S. treaty to annex the Philippines. Its use by McConnell has been criticized widely as impolitic and sexual discrimination as the Rule has not been used to stop male senators from doing the same thing the next day and from previously making many derogatory remarks on the floor about other senators.

The Rule, closely and properly read, does not apply to this situation for at least two reasons.

First, the Rule refers to “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator,” and here Warren was referring to Sessions’ conduct as a U.S. attorney before he became a senator.

Second, and more importantly, the matter under consideration was whether the Senate should confirm Sessions to be the next Attorney General and, therefore, whether he had the skills, background and character to hold this important office. Hence, his entire life was relevant on at least the character issue, and the opinion of an important U.S. citizen (Mrs. King) on his conduct as a U.S. attorney around 1986 is directly relevant to the issue of confirmation. Indeed, so is the senatorial record of  any senator who is undergoing Senate review as a cabinet nominee like Senator Sessions.

As a result, Senator McConnell should apologize to Senator Warren and the entire U.S. Senate for this improper use of Rule XIX.

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U.S. Senate, Rule XIX; Berman, A Brief History of the Senate Rule That Silenced Elizabeth Warren, Atlantic Magazine (Feb. 8, 2017);; Flegenheimer, Republican Senators Vote to Formerly Silence Elizabeth Warren, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2017); Lichtblau & Flegenheimer, Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General, Capping Legal Battle, N.Y. Times (Feb. 8, 2017).

Senate Confirms Nomination of Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State

On January 23 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by a straight party-line vote, 11 to 10, approved the nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. [1]  On February 1 the full Senate did the same, 56 to 43, which was the largest negative vote for confirmation for this position in the Senate’s history. [2]

Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Committee, said the following:[3]=

  • “I personally have no doubt that Rex Tillerson is well-qualified. He’s managed the world’s eighth largest company by revenue with over 75,000 employees. Diplomacy has been a critical component of his positions in the past, and he has shown himself to be an exceptionally able and successful negotiator who has maintained deep relationships around the world.”
  • “The other absolute standard we apply to each of these nominees who come before us is to ensure they have no conflicts of interest related to their position.”
  • “The non-partisan director of the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) recently stated that Mr. Tillerson is making ‘a clean break’ from Exxon and is free of these conflicts. He has even gone so far to say that Mr. Tillerson’s ethics agreement ‘serves as a sterling model for what we would like to see from other nominees. He clearly recognizes that public service sometimes comes at a cost.’”
  • “I believe inquiries into Mr. Tillerson’s nomination have been fair and exhaustive. His hearing lasted over eight hours, and he’s responded to over 1,000 questions for the record. I’m proud of the bipartisan process, which is in keeping of the tradition of this committee that we pursued this, regarding his nomination, and I think that while our opinions and votes today may differ, that the process has been very sound.”

Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., RI), voting against confirming this nomination, said the following:[4]

  • “I believe Mr. Tillerson’s demonstrated business orientation and his responses to questions during the confirmation hearing could compromise his ability as Secretary of State to forcefully promote the values and ideals that have defined our country and our leading role in the world for more than 200 years. I will therefore not be supporting his nomination with my vote in Committee or on the Senate floor.”
  • “The United States plays a unique and exceptional role in world affairs.  Our values are our interests, as I said at Mr. Tillerson’s hearing. And our leadership in supporting democracy, universal human rights, unencumbered civil society, and unabridged press and religious freedoms is indispensable if these ideas and ideals are to be real and tangible in the world.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson equivocated on these self-evident truths under direct questioning, repeatedly prioritizing narrow business interests ahead of these core national security interests.  The power of the Secretary of State to call out wrong, to name and shame, and to fight each day on behalf of the American people and freedom-seeking people the world over is an enduring symbol to the oppressed and the vulnerable that the United States has their back.”
  • “Mr. Tillerson was unwilling to characterize Russia and Syria’s atrocities as war crimes, or Philippine President Duterte’s extrajudicial killings as gross human rights violations. And he was not willing to dismiss with unqualified clarity a registry for any ethnic or religious group of Americans.”
  • “I also believe Mr. Tillerson misled the Committee regarding his knowledge of ExxonMobil’s [well documented] lobbying on U.S. sanctions [against “some of the worst human rights abusers in the world such as Sudan, Syria, and Iran”]. Additionally, ExxonMobil’s stance on U.S. sanctions against Russia for their illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine in 2014 was well known at the time . . . . This is why it is particularly concerning that Mr. Tillerson indicated during questioning that he was not willing to recuse himself from matters relevant to ExxonMobil for the entire duration of his term.”
  • “While I was pleased that Mr. Tillerson said that he would support the laws I have written to hold accountable human rights abusers globally and in Russia specifically, and that America should have a seat at the table when discussing climate change with the international community, merely being willing to uphold the law or being willing to participate in global diplomacy are simply the necessary prerequisites for the job, not sufficient cause for confirmation.”
  • “On Russia more broadly, I am concerned as to whether Mr. Tillerson would counsel President Trump to keep current sanctions in place. . . . He showed little interest in advancing the new Russia sanctions legislation I’ve introduced with Senator McCain and colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Russia attacked us through cyber warfare and has committed even greater atrocities in Ukraine, Syria, and Eastern Europe. They must be held accountable and our bipartisan legislation is an important tool to do so.”
  • “Strangely, he was quick to caution about easing sanctions on Cuba because it would benefit a repressive regime, but seemed indifferent to doing business with Russia knowing that that business helped finance their ongoing violations of international norms.”
  • “Finally, America deserves a Secretary of State who will take advantage of every smart power tool in America’s diplomatic arsenal before recommending the use of force. I was therefore disturbed when Mr. Tillerson signaled during the hearing he would have recommended using force sooner when asked about real-world scenarios. The Secretary of State must be the consistent voice in any Administration that ensures the President has exhausted all diplomatic efforts before we put our brave men and women in uniform in harm’s way.”

Senate Debate and Vote

During the debate, supporters stressed Tillerson’s qualifications and the importance of confirming the president’s choice or this important position.

The affirmative vote of 56 was recorded by all 52 Republican senators plus three Democrats (Heitkamp (ND), Manchin (WV) and Warner (VA)) and Independent King (ME).

The negative vote of 43 was registered by  the other 42 Democrat senators and Independent Sanders (VT).

Conclusion

In the meantime, there have been at least four major developments linked to the future role of the State Department and its new Secretary.

First, a White House post, “America First Foreign Policy,” has no specific references to Cuba. But it does have this helpful general statement: In “pursuing a foreign policy based on American interests, we will embrace diplomacy. The world must know that we do not go abroad in search of enemies, that we are always happy when old enemies become friends, and when old friends become allies.”

Second, the White House has informed at least 13 career Foreign Service officers in charge of the State Department’s bureaus responsible for policy, security and other matters that they will not be retained in those positions. A Department spokesman said, “These positions are political appointments, and require the president to nominate and the Senate to confirm them in these roles. They are not career appointments, but of limited term.” However, as Nicholas Burns, former under secretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration and a longtime diplomat, said, “Normally the outgoing person would stay in the job until his or her successor is confirmed. What you don’t want to have is a vacuum without senior leadership.”[5]

Third, the Trump Administration on January 27 issued an executive order banning admission into the U.S. of all refugees worldwide and all immigrants from seven states with majority-Muslim populations while simultaneously welcoming Christian immigrants from those same countries. This immediately prompted lawsuits in federal courts across the country with a federal court in Seattle on February 3 issuing a temporary restraining order against implementation of the executive order and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit the next morning denying the Government’s motion to stay the lower court’s order.[6]

Fourth, in another immediate reaction to that executive order, over 900 State Department diplomats prepared and submitted a dissent cable objecting to that same executive order because of its impact on “green card holders, visa holders, visa seekers, the young, the old, and the sick.” [7]

On the periphery perhaps of the above turmoil is whether the Trump Administration will abandon or alter the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalisation of relations with Cuba. As noted in a prior post, the Administration recently stated it has commenced an overall review of U.S. policies regarding Cuba, which in the abstract sounds like a reasonable thing to do. Previous statements by President Trump and Mr. Tillerson, however, suggest that a significant retreat is on its way, a development that would be very troubling to this blogger and other supporters of normalisation.[8]

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[1] Flegenheimer, Mike Pompeo Is Confirmed to Lead C.I.A., as Rex Tillerson Advances, N.Y. Times (Jan. 23, 2017); Schor, Senate panel approves Tillerson nomination, Politico (Jan. 23, 2017); Cama, Senate panel votes to confirm Tillerson, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017); Demirjian & Sullivan, Tillerson approved by Senate panel as secretary of state, Wash. Post (Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Harris, Rex Tillerson Is Confirmed as Secretary of State Amid Record Opposition, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc Press, Senate Confirms Tillerson To Be   Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb. 1, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate roll vote for Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, Wash. Post (Feb., 1, 2017).

[3] Corker, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approves Nomination of Rex Tillerson to Be Secretary of State (Jan. 23, 2017).

[4]Cardin, Cardin Statement on Tillerson Vote (Jan. 23, 2016).

[5] Gearan, Trump administration choosing to replace several senior State Department officials, Wash. Post (Jan. 26, 2017); Schwartz, Facing Replacement, Top State Department Officials Resign, W.S.J. (Jan. 26, 2017).

[6] E.g., Full Executive Order Text: Trump’s Action Limiting Refugees Into the U.S., N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017); Ländler, Appeals Court Rejects Request to Immediately Restore Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Trump’s Early Moves Spark Alarm, Resistance, N.Y. Times (Feb. 1, 2017); Biddle, New Memo from State Department Dissent Chanel Describes Anguish of Spurned Refugees, The Intercept (Jan. 31, 2017).

[8] These posts to dwkcommentaries.com have discussed preliminary indicators for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations: The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under the Trump Administration (Dec. 22, 2016); Secretary of State Nominee Rex Tillerson Addresses U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State Nominee, Provides Written Responses Regarding Cuba to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Jan. 23, 2017).

New U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, May Present a Challenge for Supporters of U.S.-Cuba Normalization

Nikki Haley, now the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., has dropped hints that she may present a challenge to supporters of U.S.-Cuba normalization. The first was in her testimony regarding Cuba before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.[1] The second was in her initial appearance at the U.N. on January 27.

Appearance Before Senate Foreign Relations Committee

On January 18, 2017, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held Nikki Haley’s confirmation hearing, and at the hearing or thereafter in writing she provided the following testimony regarding Cuba.

  1. Question: “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?”

Answer: “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”

Analysis: “That’s just wrong, as the BBC and a million other reputable sources confirm.”

  1. Question: “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principal objectives?”

Answer: “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”

Analysis: “That was a whopper, as this Voice of America op-ed, and a vast historical record shows.”

  1. Question: “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?”

Answer: “No.”

Analysis: “Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.”

  1. Question: “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?

Answer: She submitted an 85-word response that according to the CDA, didn’t directly answer the question.

On January 24, the Committee approved her nomination, 11-2 (with negative votes from Democratic Senators Coons (DE) and Udall (NM)).

Action by the Senate

The full Senate followed suit the same day, 96-4 (with negative votes from Coons and Udall plus Democrat Senator Heinrich (NM) and Independent Senator Sanders (VT)) .[2]

The Committee Chair, Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN) supported the nomination with this statement: “Governor Haley is a fierce advocate for American interests. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues. I believe that experience will serve her well, and I strongly support her nomination.” He added, “I believe she knows the United Nations needs reform and change. We have a right to demand value for our money. I think our nominee has said she will demand that. . . . Experience shows that when we have strong U.S. leadership at the U.N. we can get results. As South Carolina’s Governor, Nikki Haley is a proven leader. . . . I believe she has the instincts that will help her achieve reform. Having run a state government, she has dealt with tough management and budgetary issues.”

The nomination also was supported by Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD), the Committee’s Ranking Member, who said, ““What Governor Haley lacks in foreign policy and international affairs experience, she makes up for in capability, intelligence, and a track record of building coalitions in South Carolina. Her nomination was surprising to many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I have been impressed by her forthrightness on core American values, her willingness to admit what she does not know, and her commitment to seeking the facts and speaking truth to power, whether within the Trump Administration or with an intransigent Russia and China in the Security Council.”

Ambassador Haley’s Initial Appearance at the U.N.

Ambassador Haley @ U.N.
Ambassador Haley @ U.N.

On January 27, only three days after her confirmation, she made her very first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly and delivered a blunt warning to every nation in the world. She said, “You’re going to see a change in the way we do business. Our goal with the administration is to show value at the U.N., and the way we’ll show value is to show our strength, show our voice, have the backs of our allies and make sure our allies have our back as well. For those who don’t have our back, we’re taking names; we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”[3]

Conclusion

First, her lack of knowledge regarding Cuba may not be surprising since her prior experience has been in state government, but it is a troubling sign that she may not be committed to normalization.

Second, her statement that she would not abstain on the forthcoming U.N. General Assembly resolution against the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba is also troubling by itself. It is even more troubling when coupled with her recent statement at the U.N. that the U.S. would be taking the names of those countries that do not have the U.S.’ back and responding accordingly. That suggests that the U.S. may seek to take some kind of action against virtually every country in the world that supports that resolution.

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[1] Ctr. Democracy in Americas, Cuba News Blast (Jan. 27, 2017).

[2] Press Release, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Approved Nomination of Nikki Haley to be U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Votes to Confirm Nikki Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Corker Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Press Release, Cardin Statement on Haley Vote (Jan. 24, 2017); Assoc. Press, Senate Confirms Trump’s Nominee for US Ambassador to UN, N.Y. Times (Jan. 24, 2017); Carney, Senate confirms Trump’s UN ambassador, The Hill (Jan. 24, 2017).

[3] Sengupta, Nikki Haley Puts U.N. on Notice: U.S. Is ‘Taking Names,’ N.Y. Times (Jan. 27, 2017).

U.S. and Cuba Sign Additional Agreements

This week the U.S. and Cuba have signed four additional agreements.[1]

On January 16 the two countries in Havana signed the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that was discussed in a prior post.

On January 18 in Havana, the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen cooperation in the field of maritime and aeronautical search and rescue by enhancing effectiveness and efficiency in assisting persons in distress and to act in furtherance of obligations under international law. A Cuban official noted that the accord is particularly important to conducting joint and continued efforts to find and protect people in danger, that the two countries have been collaborating on search and rescue efforts for over 20 years and that in 2014 they had established procedural and operational frameworks for emergency cases. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy, highlighted the importance of perfecting such efforts given the increase in authorized trade and the flow of travelers between both countries.

On January 18 the U.S. and Cuba joined with Mexico at the State Department in Washington, D.C. to sign a treaty to set territorial limits in contested Gulf of Mexico waters. The treaty covers the Eastern Gap of the Gulf of Mexico, an area believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The three countries’ overlapping claims in the Eastern Gap had created what is known as a “Doughnut Hole.” Trilateral discussions begun in mid-2016 on the maritime territorial issue were concluded by the end of the year. Because it is a treaty, for the U.S. it must be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

On January 19 in Havana the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to help prevent the introduction and spread of quarantine pests, animal and plant disease agents through the exchange of scientific information, best practices for the prevention and control of plagues and emerging diseases, collaborative scientific projects, including the use of technology, research and surveillance, and the holding of events on specific aspects of animal and plant health. This MOU provides a specific framework for the cooperation in the field of animal and plant health, complementing the provisions of the MOU on cooperation in the field of agriculture and other related areas that was signed on March 21, 2016.

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Sign Search and Rescue Agreement (Jan. 18, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Sign Maritime Boundary Treaty (Jan. 18, 2017); Reuters, United States and Cuba Complete Deals as Trump Era Set to Begin, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2017); Reuters, US, Mexico, Cuba Ready to Sign ‘Doughnut Hole” Deal in Gulf Waters, N.Y. Times (Jan. 18, 2017), DeYoung, U.S.-Cuba sign torrent of agreements under the inauguration wire, Wash. Post (Jan. 18, 2017); Hernandez, Cuba and U.S. sign search and rescue agreement, Granma (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and United States Signed Treaty on the Delimitation of the Continental Shelf in the Eastern Polygon of the Gulf of Mexico (Jan. 18, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and the United States sign Memorandum of understanding in the field of animal and plant health (Jan. 20, 2017).

Possible Amendments to the New Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) 

As reported in a prior post, on September 28, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly voted to override President Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) even though the Chair (Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN)) and Ranking Member (Senator Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD)) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senator Diane Feinstein expressed deep reservations about the wisdom of this law.

Immediately after the adoption of this law, Senator Corker and others expressed desires to change the new law.[1] Let us look at these concerns and efforts to amend JASTA.

Certain Senators’ Concerns

Senator Corker said he thought the issues could be addressed in the “lame-duck” /Senator session of Congress after the November election and that possible fixes included limiting the bill’s scope just to the Sept. 11 attacks, changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill and establishing a tribunal of experts who ‘could first determine if there was culpability there.’”

Without specifics Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there could be “potential consequences” of JASTA that are “worth further discussing.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress might have to “fix” the legislation to protect U.S. troops in particular. Trent Lott, a former Republican Senate Majority Leader and now a lobbyist for the Saudis, said, “I do feel passionately this is a mistake for a variety of reasons, in terms of threats to troops, diplomats, sovereignty, there’s serious problems here. Hopefully we can find a way to change the tenor of this.”

 Saudi Arabia’s Reactions

On October 3 Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet released a statement criticizing the adoption of JASTA.[2] It said the new law was “a source of concern to the international community in which relations are based on the principle of equality and sovereign immunity, as this law came to weaken the immunity of the world guaranteed by the United Nations, its agencies and councils which were formed to preserve the legal sovereignty of all its member countries across the universe. Weakening this sovereign immunity will affect all countries, including the United States. [The cabinet] expressed hope that wisdom will prevail and that the U.S. Congress would take the necessary steps to avoid the bad and dangerous consequences that may result from the JASTA legislation.”

On October 20 U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. Afterwards the two of them held a joint announcement at the State Department.[3] With respect to JASTA, Kerry said:

  • We “did discuss [JASTA’s] very negative impact on the concept of sovereign immunity. And the interests of . . . [the U.S.] are at risk as a result of the law that was passed in Congress in the final days. And we discussed ways to try to fix this in a way that respects and honors the needs and rights of victims of 9/11 but at the same time does not expose American troops and American partners and American individuals who may be involved in another country to the potential of a lawsuit for those activities. Sovereign immunity is a longstanding, well-upheld standard of law, and unfortunately this legislation – unintentionally, I think – puts it at great risk and thereby puts our country at great risk. So we’re talking about ways to try to address that.”

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir’s comments about JASTA were the following:

  • “I . . . want to add my voice to what the Secretary said about the importance of sovereign immunities. Sovereign immunities have been a cardinal principle of the international legal order that was established after the Treaty of Westphalia in the 1600s. The objective is to bring order to the international system. And where sovereign immunities are diluted, the international system becomes chaotic, and no country, and no government, is able to conduct its official business without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, as the country with the biggest footprint in the world, of course has the most to lose by this, because you have operations all the way from Japan to South America to the Pacific, and I think that is why the vast majority of countries have come out vehemently and very strongly against . . . JASTA . . . for its dilution of sovereign immunities. And there have been a number of countries that are looking at reciprocal measures, and if this issue takes hold, we will have chaos in the international order, and this is something that no country in the world wants.”

However, neither gentleman provided details about so-called “fixes for JASTA.

Moreover, there already are “9/11 lawsuits” brought by 9,000 plaintiffs against Saudi Arabia consolidated in federal court in the Southern District of New York in Manhattan that had been dismissed, but will be resurrected under JASTA. Already there is talk about potential discovery and other pre-trial activity in the cases. This includes plaintiffs’ efforts to reinstate Saudi Arabia as a defendant. And on September 30 a new Sept. 11 lawsuit against Saudi Arabia was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., on behalf of the widow and daughter of a Navy officer killed in the attack on the Pentagon.

However, Raj Bhala, a professor of international and comparative law at the University of Kansas Law School, opines that the “deck remains stacked against the plaintiffs” with their biggest challenge: persuading a court there is solid evidence of a direct Saudi government role in the 9/11 attacks.[4]

Other Reactions

On October 10 China’s Foreign Ministry said China opposes all forms of terrorism and supports the international community on anti-terrorism cooperation, but that such efforts should “respect international law and principles of international relations, including fundamental principles of nations’ sovereign equality.” Therefore, every country “should not put . . . [its] domestic laws above international law and should not link terrorism with any specific country, religion or ethnicity.” The Foreign Ministry also noted that China’s people and assets at home and around the world face a growing risk from terrorism, but it has a foreign policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs.[5]

Many other countries oppose JASTA. France considers that laws such as JASTA would lead to a “legal chaos” at the international level. Russia has slammed the legislation as undermining international law. Turkey views JASTA as a law against the principle of individual criminal responsibility for crimes and expects it would be reversed shortly. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry warned that JASTA could have a dire effect on US international relations.[6]

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said JASTA was an example of “legislative fecklessness.” Immediately after the bill’s passage, Republican congressional leaders talked about the need to “fix” the bill and tried to blame President Obama for the problems by falsely claiming he had not made a strong case against the bill. But the president had vetoed the bill, publicly articulated the reasons for the veto and personally and through Administration officials had warned congressional leaders about the adverse implications of the bill. Thus, a “’stupid bill’ that adversely affects American national interests is now law.”[7]

A New York Times editorial, agreeing with Professor Drezner, said that the adoption of the bill over a presidential veto, was a new example of congressional “craven incompetence” and that JASTA should be repealed. A Wall Street Journal editorial also called for repeal.[8]

Conclusion

The only specific suggestions of ways to “fix” JASTA that I have seen are Senator Corker’s. The idea of creating a new tribunal presumably to assess whether a specific state has sponsored or aided and abetted acts of terrorism in the U.S. sounds too complicated, but there are not enough details about such an idea to have a detailed response. The same is the case for his other suggestion about changing some of the technical definitions or thresholds in the bill. The idea of limiting the law to 9/11, however, might be a way to see how such a law works out in practice before it is expanded to include any other situation as the law now stands.

Instead, I offer the following initial suggestions for amending JASTA on the assumption that repeal is not currently feasible:

  1. Assign exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions under JASTA to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and require or suggest that all such cases be assigned to a designated District Judge. That will assist the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the White House and foreign governments in monitoring any such actions and eliminate the risk of inconsistent decisions at the District Court level and at the level of the federal courts of appeal. There is no reason to have any other federal courts involved in such cases and absolutely no reason to have any state courts so involved.
  2. Make the U.S. Government a necessary party to any such civil action.
  3. There should be limitations on permissible pre-trial discovery in such cases. Here is one way to do so. After answers to any complaint in any such civil action have been served and filed and before any other proceedings in the case, require the U.S. Government to provide its opinion as to whether the foreign state in any such case has sponsored or aided and abetted any acts of terrorism in the U.S. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has not sponsored or aided and abetted any act of terrorism in the U.S., then the civil action should be dismissed. If the U.S. Government states that the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the case should proceed to assess damages with appropriate discovery. If the U.S. Government states that it does not know whether the foreign state has so sponsored or aided and abetted, then the U.S. Government should propose a plan for discovery in the case to attempt to resolve that question as quickly and as inexpensively as possible with a prohibition of any discovery that is not included in such a plan.

Now we wait to see what bills will be introduced in Congress to amend JASTA.

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[1] Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers May change Sept. 11 Law After Rejecting Veto, N.Y. times (Sept. 30, 2016); Peterson & Lee, Congress Looks to Narrow Bill Allowing Terror Victims to Sue Foreign Governments, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] Reuters, U.S. Sept. 11 Law Weakens International Relations, Saudi Cabinet Says, N.Y. Times (Oct. 3, 2016); Saudi Press Agency, Press Release regarding JASTA (Oct. 4, 2016); Hubbard, Angered by 9/11 Victims Law, Saudis Rethink U.S. Alliance, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Remarks with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir After Their Meeting (Oct. 20, 2016) Reuters, U.S. Urges Houthis to Keep Ceasefire, Discusses JASTA With Saudi, N.Y. Times (Oct. 20, 2016). No additional details about any proposed “fixes” to JASTA were provided in response to questions at the State Department’s October 21 Daily Press Briefing.

[4] Mazzetti, Claims of Saudi Role in 9/11 Appear Headed for Manhattan Court, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016); Bravin, Lawyers Move Quickly After Congress Enacts Bill Allowing Suits Against Saudi Arabia, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

[5] Reuters, China Backs Sovereign Immunity After U.S. Sept. 11 Bill Becomes Law, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2016).

[6] Fotouh, JASTA: Real threats and hidden opportunities, Egypt Daily News (Oct. 24, 2016).

[7] Drezner, The unbearable idiocy of Congress, Wash. Post (Sept. 30, 2016).

[8] Editorial, Congress Has Itself to Blame for 9/11 Bill, N.Y. Times (Sept. 30, 2016); Editorial, Instant Senate Remorse, W.S.J. (Sept. 30, 2016).

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.

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[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).