Suing the Saudis only hurts the U.S.
Guess which nation benefits the most from sovereign immunity
It’s not easy to defend an obscure legal doctrine against claims for justice from the victims of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. But doing so has become a necessity, because Congress has decided to rewrite U.S. law on sovereign immunity.
On May 17 the Senate unanimously passed the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which authorizes U.S. courts to hear civil claims for monetary damages against a foreign state accused of direct involvement in a terrorist act harming an American citizen in the U.S. Under current law, almost all foreign nations are immune from lawsuits in U.S. courts.
While the bill doesn’t name any particular country, it would enable the Sept. 11 families to sue Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and some officials and members of the royal family have long been accused of involvement in the plot. President Obama has promised to veto the bill.
A veto would be well-deserved, and before members of Congress try to override it, they might want to consider the value of sovereign immunity—and the nation that benefits from it the most. (Hint: They represent it.) If other nations follow the Senate’s lead, no country would be a bigger, better, richer target for lawsuits than the U.S. In Cuba and Iran, courts have already issued billions of dollars in judgments against Washington. This potential legal liability would hang over the U.S. fight against global terrorism and leave the government liable for actions by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. U.S. aid to Israel, for example, could leave it open to suits from Palestinians injured by Israeli troops. The entirety of U.S. foreign policy could be put on trial under the guise of seeking monetary justice.
Acknowledging the importance of sovereign immunity doesn’t require overlooking the Saudis’ role in the rise of Muslim extremism. But the response to that activity properly resides in the realm of diplomacy and trade policy, not in court.
No one can deny the right of the Sept. 11 families to truth and justice. They’ve already received billions from the victim compensation fund established by Congress, and two government investigations spent years producing the 9/11 Commission Report.
A more productive exercise of congressional authority would focus on that report—specifically, the so-called 28 pages from the initial Sept. 11 investigation that remain under seal. Some lawmakers who’ve seen them say there’s nothing damaging to national security in them and they should be released. Others say they’re filled with hearsay implicating prominent Saudi citizens. A compromise isn’t hard to envision: Release the pages, along with an explanation from the commission as to why the allegations don’t hold up. Such an agreement would also serve the cause of truth and justice—without jeopardizing America’s moral and legal standing in the rest of the world.