JASTA BILL: WHAT IT MEANS FOR VICTIMS OF 9/11

WRITTEN BY ZANAB J.S.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, also known as the JASTA bill, was passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate earlier in May this year. The bill aims to amend federal laws originally used to protect foreign entities from domestic prosecution practices for acts of terrorism. Should JASTA pass, the families of victims of 9/11 would be able to sue Saudi Arabia for its role in funding the September attacks. 

It amends the federal criminal code to permit civil claims against a foreign state or official for injuries, death, or damages from an act of international terrorism. Additionally, the bill authorizes federal courts to exercise personal jurisdiction over and impose liability on a person who commits, or aids, abets, or conspires to commit, an act of international terrorism against a U.S. national.

JASTA has garnered criticism from several politicians and White House officials as a threat to foreign relations, as well as a point of weakness for future confrontations between the U.S. and other countries. Joshua Earnest, the White House press secretary stated the following regarding the administration's concerns: 

The concern that we have is simply this:  It could put the United States and our taxpayers and our servicemembers and our diplomats at significant risk if countries were -- other countries were to adopt a similar law.  Let me give you one example.  Obviously, the United States is involved in a wide variety of humanitarian relief efforts in countries around the world at any given time.  If somebody decided that they wanted to -- that they were unhappy with the way that those humanitarian relief efforts were being carried out, you can imagine someone in some faraway country would file a lawsuit against the United States for our humanitarian relief efforts.

Earnest has previously stated that President Obama did not support the new legislation and would veto its eligibility upon passing, citing fears that America could itself become victim to such a law should it be adopted by other countries. 

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, also had concerns regarding the original draft. Graham issued a hold on JASTA citing a need for editing the original proposed legislation. Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, echoed those sentiments:

..."we need to look at it… review it to make sure we are not making mistakes with our allies and that we're not catching people in this that shouldn't be caught up in this."

Caution from both sides regarding the bill is being met positively by Saudi Arabian officials, who have warned financial action against their ally. Abdel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, has threatened Saudi Arabia would liquify $750 billion dollars in U.S. Treasure securities should the bill be passed. 

Political analysts have criticized the Obama administration's resistance as the intent to protect Saudi Arabia--a recognizable trend considering the Saudi-U.S. partnership and past attempts to prevent exposure of Saudi Arabia such as in the classification of the 2002 congressional 9/11 report which discusses Saudi's involvement in the September attacks. 

JASTA would undermine sovereign immunity as outlined in the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FISA) in an attempt to allow victims of terrorist attacks to sue the governments of countries involved in funding global terrorism. FISA contains only 3 exceptions to sovereign immunity: Iran, Syria and Sudan, which the U.S. State Department designates as state sponsors of terrorism. 

The definition of "state sponsored terrorism" now seems loose as Saudi Arabia, a country that is absent from the U.S. State Department list along with Iran, Syria or Sudan, despite alleged financing of Al-Qaeda and several other global terrorist outfits for years under the guise of humanitarian funds, false-front corporations and diplomatic institutions as alleged in the newly declassified 28 pages of the 9/11 Congressional Report

As such, several families of victims of 9/11 as well as businesses damaged during the attack seek to claim restitution from Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in funding, housing and coordinating with hijackers of Flight 177 and 75. 

Despite its popularity and support both within the Senate and amongst the American people, lawmakers argue JASTA poses a threat to immunity shared by the United States as well. 

Two law professors from the Bush administration, Jack Goldsmith and Curtis Bradley, wrote the following regarding JASTA in an Op-Ed for the New York Times: 

"A nation’s immunity from lawsuits in the courts of another nation is a fundamental tenet of international law [...] were the sovereign immunity rule to weaken, the United States would be subject to many more lawsuits in foreign courts than any other nation and would become an attractive and high-profile target for politicized litigation designed to contest its foreign policy."

Outside of its approval and disapproval from the greater population and the White House respectively, the JASTA legislation poses a precious opportunity for families of victims of 9/11 and the victims of future terrorist attacks in which U.S. citizens are harmed or compromised.

Donna O'Conner, the mother of a woman killed in the 9/11 attacks, says she hopes to hold Saudi Arabia financially accountable for the death of her daughter: 

“I believe there will always be money for terrorism when there is a motive. I am under no illusions that this suit would bankrupt anything. But there should be justice meted out in courts, and those culpable for the manipulation of lives and deaths ought to pay, in every and any way possible." 

As the bill approaches the House of Representatives and the Obama administration approaches its final days in office, the JASTA legislation continues to contribute to an unsteady future for U.S.-Saudi relations, as well as a point of hope for victims of terrorism worldwide. 

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