Does the bill permitting lawsuits against governments set dangerous precedent?

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Protesters and family members of 9/11 victims hold placards in front of the White House regarding President Barack Obama's threatened veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) in Washington, U.S., September 20, 2016.   REUTERS/Gary Cameron - RTSOMWL

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the votes today on Capitol Hill to override for the first time the veto of a bill by President Obama — the issue, permitting lawsuits against governments that support terrorist acts inside the United States, one government in particular.

MAN: The bill, on reconsideration, is passed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a rare show of unity. Senators voted 97-1 to override the president’s veto, with Minority Leader Harry Reid the lone holdout. The bill permits families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia over its alleged support of the 19 hijackers, most of whom were Saudis.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas): How can anyone look at the families in the eye and tell them that they shouldn’t have the opportunity to seek justice against a foreign government responsible for the death of their loved one?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-N.Y.): It’s very simple. If the Saudis were culpable, they should be held accountable. If they had nothing to do with 9/11, they have nothing to fear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The attack left nearly 3,000 people dead, and the Saudis have long rejected any claim they were involved. Their foreign minister spoke this past July, after Congress released a long-classified section of the official U.S. government report on the 9/11 attacks.

ADEL AL-JUBEIR, Foreign Minister, Saudi Arabia: The CIA director, the director of national intelligence, came out and said that there was no involvement of the Saudi government or Saudi officials in the events of 9/11. The Senate Intelligence Committee did its own investigation, came to the same conclusion. And so the matter is now finished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Saudis also strongly opposed this lawsuit bill. President Obama warned it could strain relations with Riyadh and spur retaliation against Americans elsewhere.

In his veto message to Congress on Friday, the president said: “The bill doesn’t enhance the safety of Americans from terrorist attacks, and undermines core U.S. interests.”

Defense Secretary Ash Carter also wrote to Congress, predicting potentially devastating consequences for American troops abroad.

But supporters largely dismissed those fears, and the House joined the Senate this afternoon overwhelmingly rejecting the president’s veto.

President Obama called the vote a mistake and warned that it sets a dangerous precedent. We get two views now.

Jack Quinn is a lawyer representing more than 2,000 families who were impacted by the attacks on 9/11 and who are suing Saudi Arabia. He was also White House counsel during the Bill Clinton administration. And Michael Mukasey, he was attorney general of the United States during the George W. Bush administration.

And we welcome both of you.

Jack Quinn, let me start with you.

Why do these families believe the government of Saudi Arabia should be subject to lawsuits?

JACK QUINN, Lawyer representing 9/11 families: Well, they think that any government that — with respect to which there is credible evidence of governmental involvement in a terrorist attack should be held accountable in the United States.

That’s all JASTA does. It says…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s the name of the bill.

JACK QUINN: I’m sorry.

The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act says, quite simply, that if a government, sovereign government, aids and abets a terrorist attack inside the United States that causes death or injury in the United States, then the courts of this country have jurisdiction over that government.

I think if you ask most people in the street, should that be the law, they would be shocked that it’s not. And for a long time, frankly, it was. The administration which General Mukasey served, the Bush administration, went into court and said that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would allow suits for terrorist attacks in the United States like 9/11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mukasey, it sounds like a reasonable request that these families are making.

MICHAEL MUKASEY, Former Attorney General: Yes, it sounds reasonable.

But if you look at it closely, it isn’t. First of all, I don’t think anybody disputes that the families deserve not only sympathy, but recompense and compensation to the extent that these losses can be compensated. And they can’t. But this bill doesn’t do it, doesn’t do it, for at least two reasons.

Number one, there have been not one, not two, not three, but at least four investigations by national security officials in the United States, by the CIA, the FBI, and the 9/11 Commission that found, directly concluded that there was no Saudi government involvement or involvement by high Saudi officials in 9/11.

That has been investigated and reinvestigated. So, there is simply no evidence there to show Saudi involvement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me just stop you right there.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: It’s also counterintuitive that there would be, because Osama bin Laden, when he was listing his reasons for 9/11, said that the presence of U.S. troops in the Arabian Peninsula was a principal reason.

They were there at the invitation of the United States. He was trying to overthrow the Saudi government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what evidence…

MICHAEL MUKASEY: It’s completely counterintuitive that they would participate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jack Quinn, so, what is the evidence that the families, that you are basing this on?

JACK QUINN: Well, I want to start by saying what the judge just said is flatly untrue.

Those investigations concluded no such thing. In fact, the 9/11 Commission report itself, in a very carefully constructed sentence, that — said, although there was not evidence — that it had not found evidence of official Saudi government involvement, it conceded that it was likely that there was involvement in terms of people associated with the government and charities sponsored by the governments that had provided funds to the terrorist organization al-Qaida that was behind the 9/11 attack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why not sue those individuals or those charitable organizations, rather than the government?

JACK QUINN: They are sued.

But the government is responsible because, we allege, there were officials of the government that participated in the provision of those finances to the hijackers. The story is, frankly, quite shocking.

And 9/11 commissioners former Senator Bob Kerrey, former Congressman Tim Roemer, former Navy Secretary John Lehman completely dispute what the judge just said about the import of the 9/11 Commission report.

But, look, whether I’m right or he’s right, the Congress has completely rejected this argument that the families shouldn’t have their day in court. It is now the law of the land. They will have their day in court. And, as Senator Schumer said, if the Saudis are completely innocent of any responsibility here, they will do just fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Mukasey, what about that point, that if the Saudis — if there is not — if it turns out that there is no proof that the Saudi government or anyone associated with the Saudi government was involved, why not let this go forward?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: A couple reasons.

First of all, as — I don’t know whether you know this or not, but all a party has to do in order to have a lawsuit go forward is make allegations, claims in a complaint. If that survives a motion to dismiss — and crafty lawyers can file a complaint that will survive a motion to dismiss — then they get into what’s called discovery, meaning they can riffle through the files, in this case, of the Saudi government, depose witnesses of the Saudi government, make them disclose national secrets.

There is no sovereign government in the world that would ever participate in an exercise like that. We certainly wouldn’t. And it’s inconceivable that the Saudis would.

So, and, again, it’s a situation where essentially they’re blackmailed into writing a check. Plenty of governments have indicated that — go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was going to say, let Mr. Quinn respond to that.

(CROSSTALK)

JACK QUINN: Yes, again, that was entirely incorrect.

The judge should know this, that a foreign government has an immunity to protect its state secrets and sensitive classified information. That is a fact.

And what he describes as being able to bring a lawsuit by making allegations and going to court, that’s the American system of justice, and that’s the system of justice that’s been denied to the 9/11 families. The Congress has now overwhelmingly said these citizens deserve that justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mukasey, you and others who oppose this are concerned about the precedent. What is the dangerous precedent that you’re concerned about?

MICHAEL MUKASEY: There have been other countries — there have been parties in other countries who have tried to get at government officials and at soldiers in places as diverse as Belgium and Italy.

There was an attempt to get Secretary Rumsfeld charged in Belgium. There have been attempts to get U.S. soldiers charged in Italy. This is the sort of thing that sovereign immunity was meant to prevent.

We are the most present nation in the world. We have more people in more countries in the world than anybody else, more soldiers, more diplomats, more intelligence gatherers. Every one of them is going to have a target on his back after this legislation, because people have been trying to curtail our activities by going after those people. And now they will have a good excuse for doing it.

And the notion that somehow — the notion that somehow they would simply go after the U.S. government is absurd. This isn’t going to be tit for tat. It’s going to be a rat-a-tat-tat for tat, and we’re going to be on the wrong end of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, 10 seconds, response.

JACK QUINN: You know, if a driver from the Saudi Embassy runs you over on your way home tonight, you are allowed to sue that person.

Why in heaven’s name would American justice allow a lawsuit in that circumstance, but not to the families of 3,000 murdered Americans?

JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank you both.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: You’re not talking about suing a person. You’re talking about suing government.

JACK QUINN: Correct in both cases.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mukasey — Michael Mukasey and Jack Quinn, we thank you both.

JACK QUINN: Thank you so much.

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