President Obama had vetoed a bill passed by Congress that allows U.S. citizens who are victims of state sponsored terrorism to sue the governments who sponsor that terrorism in U.S. courts. This has sparked some outrage overseas even as it gives families of 9/11 victims some shot at holding the Saudi Royal family accountable in U.S. courts, if the families can prove their case (and if they get that far). Obama opposed the law on the grounds of sovereign immunity, which generally immunizes recognized states from civil lawsuits or criminal prosecution.
It's rare that Obama would get something like this wrong, but I think he did. First, we regularly strip government actors of immunity. In the case of war crimes, for example, immunity is no defense. Augusto Pinochet was prosecuted, in the end. So I think we can accept that our understanding of sovereign immunity has always been fluid. It seems to hold fast for minor crimes (diplomats who refuse to pay parking tickets while attending the UN general assembly is a common New York problem) but not so much for mass murder.
Second, we have allowed families to sue governments over terrorism before. There were 26 lawsuits against Libya's government over the 1988 Lockerbie airplane bombing. Libya's Muammar Gaddafi accepted responsibility in 2003 and in 2008, Libya's sovereign immunity was restored after Gaddafi made restitution payments to settle the suits. The existence of those lawsuits did not cause international diplomacy to collapse into a tizzy of global lawsuits.
That latter effect is what most seems to worry opponents of the bill -- that the U.S. government will find itself sued in courts around the world over drone strikes, commando raids and, of course, the entirety of U.S. Cold War policies in Latin America and Asia, not to mention post 9/11 policies in the Middle East. But "our government doesn't want to be sued," does not seem like a good argument for denying U.S. citizens who may be able to prove they were victims of Saudi Arabia's government a right make their argument in court. Besides, is our government perhaps worried that it might be sued over things that, well, it should be sued over.
One objection I've heard is that the bill applies to all victims of state sponsored terrorism and that it could have been limited in scope to just 9/11. But I don't see why one set of victims should be favored over others.
Another issue is how Saudi Arabia might react. They have threatened to sell off U.S. assets such as bonds, real estate an corporate equities, that a court might seize to guaranty payments of damages. But it would be stupid for them to engage in some sort of unforced fire sale and we are a long way from damages being awarded because this bill still stacks the deck in favor of the defendants as it allows the State Department to petition the courts to dismiss the suits and of course allows the government to refuse to hand over classified information that might help the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs have such a long road ahead that Saudi Arabia needs do nothing to protect its U.S.-domiciled assets now and, in any event. even if it dumped all of its U.S. holdings, if it lost the lawsuit, the U.S. would be able to compel payment if the will is there.
But all of this talk about payments if far fetched. The most likely result of a trial will be an unearthing of information and, in the end, we all deserve a fuller accounting of Saudi Arabia's involvement in 9/11 than we have had.
The best result, really, would be for a judge to move a trial along quickly and publicly, starting tomorrow. Wishful thinking, I know.