U.S. Could Pay a High Price for Suing the Saudis

Scene of the crime.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It was hardly a surprise that the House unanimously passed a bill supported by the families of Sept. 11 victims just before the 15th anniversary of the attack. Unfortunately, law is more likely to make the U.S. vulnerable to unlimited lawsuits by its enemies. President Barack Obama should stick to his promise to reject it, and ideally Congress will come to its senses and not try to override the veto.

While the bill doesn’t mention any nation specifically, its purpose is clearly to allow U.S. citizens to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. The Saudis have long been sponsors of extremist Islam, but evidence tying them to actual perpetrators of the 2001 attacks is circumstantial at best. The release of the so-called “28 pages” from the congressional investigation of Sept. 11 disappointed those certain it contained proof of Saudi involvement.

It’s not even clear that the act would be much help in any lawsuits: It contains a provision giving the executive branch the power to stay any proceeding so long as it “is engaged in good faith discussions with the foreign state defendant concerning the resolution of the claims against the foreign state.”

It is abundantly clear, by contrast, that the bill would undermine the longstanding principle of sovereign immunity, under which such disputes are resolved between nations, not in courts. The unraveling of this doctrine makes any nation vulnerable to suits by the citizens of another -- and no state will be more vulnerable than the U.S.

If this principle is abandoned, it’s a good bet that anti-American lawsuits will flourish not just in hostile states like Iran -- where, in fact, the U.S. has been found guilty many times in judgments not enforceable under sovereign immunity -- but almost certainly in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen and other countries where U.S. counter-terrorism efforts have mistakenly killed civilians. Moreover, in addition to the potential monetary costs, parties in civil suits are often given wide powers of discovery, potentially allowing them access to state secrets.

The Sept. 11 victims and their families deserve everlasting support and compassion, and they are admirable in their dogged pursuit of justice. But members of Congress might also want to consider the sort of “justice” this bill would leave the U.S. vulnerable to on the global stage.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.