The editorial boards of the US’s four most influential newspapers joined President Barack Obama in opposition to the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, a bill that makes suing Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 attacks markedly easier:
- Should We Let 9/11 Victims Sue Saudi Arabia? Not So Fast (Washington Post, 9/15/16)
- An Obama Veto Worth Backing (Wall Street Journal, 9/20/16)
- The Risks of Suing the Saudis for 9/11 (New York Times, 9/27/16)
- Uphold Veto on 9/11 Lawsuits: Our View (USA Today, 9/27/16)
The uniform opposition to such a popular piece of legislation by the major US papers provides a good snapshot of their essential role: gatekeepers of American national security orthodoxy.
This position is expressed in their primary objection to the bill: Its passing could potentially expose the US military and intelligence agencies to liabilities for crimes they commit overseas.
After some bluster about the sacredness of sovereign immunity, the Washington Post finishes off its editorial with the main problem:
Mr. Obama has repeatedly called it a precedent other countries could easily turn against the United States. It is not a far-fetched concern, given this country’s global use of intelligence agents, special operations forces and drones, all of which could be construed as state-sponsored “terrorism” when convenient.
The New York Times shared this near-fetched concern:
Because no country is more engaged in the world than the United States — with military bases, drone operations, intelligence missions and training programs — the Obama administration fears that Americans could be subject to legal actions abroad.
As did USA Today:
Weakening sovereign immunity could invite retaliation, opening the military and other US officials serving abroad to similar lawsuits from other countries filed in courts all over the world.
Notice that the possibility of other countries suing the US for war crimes its government commits is automatically assumed to be undesirable. The Washington Post puts “terrorism” in irony quotes because, of course, the US could never actually commit terrorism; claims to this effect could only be invoked “when convenient” by greedy non-Americans.
The New York Times uses its trademark euphemisms to describe how the US is “engaged in the world” with “drone operations.” A nice way of saying the US uses drones to bomb people in a half-dozen countries with—so far—legal impunity. Changing this state of affairs is simply glossed over as a nonstarter.
USA Today frames any attempt at legal recourse over American terrorism overseas as “retaliation”—presumably for some righteous kill executed by the United States in the service of freedom.
The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today are saying that exposing American military and intelligence personnel to foreign liability is per se bad—a nativism so casual and matter-of-fact one might hardly notice it until circumstances force them to explicitly state it. No account is taken of the 7 billion non-Americans or their rights. No explanation is given as to why victims of US terror–of which there are many–shouldn’t register in our moral calculus. They just don’t.
The irony is that none of these publications were overly concerned with exposing the US to foreign lawsuits when they offered support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a corporate trade deal that includes a provision for Investor-State Dispute Settlement—meaning it permits corporations to sue governments, including the US, in the event that a regulation undermines corporate profits. So increased exposure to liability to the US government when it gives more power to corporations is permissible, even desirable, but when it might provide recourse for victims of US war crimes? Not so much.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.