Jeff Sessions pushed JASTA and real accountability

The Hill recently labeled the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act one of the Top 10 Lobbying Victories of 2016 and credited the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism – “the 9/11 families” – as the lobbying victors in this effort. It is true that the September 11 community worked for nearly seven years to persuade Congress to enact this law to deter terrorism, but the real credit for JASTA goes to the Members of Congress and their staff who spent years fighting for this law.

In particular, the law’s sponsors, senators John CornynJohn CornynMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Hoyer suggests Dems won't support spending bill without DACA fix MORE (R-TX), Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration White House: Trump remarks didn't derail shutdown talks Schumer defends Durbin after GOP senator questions account of Trump meeting MORE (D-NY), along with Rep. Peter King (R-NY), were simply relentless in the face of an unprecedented foreign-funded opposition.

That anti-JASTA lobbying effort was astonishing to behold. The Saudis, spending millions on foreign agents, leaned heavily on their friends in the Obama Administration and Congress.

President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMcCarthy: ‘No deadline on DACA’ Democrats will need to explain if they shut government down over illegal immigration Trump’s first year in office was the year of the woman MORE urged Congress to oppose JASTA and later vetoed the bill. That put every Democrat in a very awkward position. Likewise, disclosure reports filed at the Justice Department show that Saudi agents were talking regularly with senators John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain rips Trump for attacks on press NSA spying program overcomes key Senate hurdle Meghan McCain says her father regrets opposition to MLK Day MORE (R-AZ), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamDHS chief takes heat over Trump furor Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Bipartisan group to introduce DACA bill in House MORE (R-SC), and Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate campaign fundraising reports roll in Congress should take the lead on reworking a successful Iran deal North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics MORE (R-TN), and we received reports that they were fighting against JASTA behind the scenes.

When the dust settled, however, the JASTA veto was overridden overwhelmingly – the only veto override of the Obama presidency. The 9/11 families are deeply appreciative that large majorities in each body faced down the lobbying onslaught and stood up for terrorism victims.

One of the senators who played a key role in getting JASTA passed was Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsSessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants DOJ wades into archdiocese fight for ads on DC buses Overnight Cybersecurity: Bipartisan bill aims to deter election interference | Russian hackers target Senate | House Intel panel subpoenas Bannon | DHS giving 'active defense' cyber tools to private sector MORE (R-AL), Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE’s choice to be Attorney General. Sessions was initially skeptical of JASTA, and even abstained during Judiciary Committee votes. His anti-terrorism record was unimpeachable, but we were informed he had a sincere concern that JASTA was not written tightly enough, and that changes were necessary to avoid unintended consequences in international relations. 

Sen. Bob Corker raised similar questions.

Senators Cornyn and Schumer disagreed that JASTA needed any “fixes,” but were willing to work constructively to alleviate concerns without weakening JASTA. They amended the bill to give greater authority to the executive branch to resolve disputes diplomatically, to create a dedicated exception to foreign sovereign immunity for terrorism on U.S. soil, and to make it absolutely clear that no nation has the discretionary right to support terrorism or terror groups. Those discussions produced a JASTA bill Sessions could support.

Despite these changes, the coddling of the Saudis from other quarters continued. President Obama and the Saudis lobbied against the bill. They especially focused on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where Sessions has long served, but Sessions never blinked. He kept his word, and he was an unwavering supporter of JASTA when it passed the Senate in May, and again when he voted to override the veto in September.

The lesson the 9/11 families learned was that Sessions and his staff could be relied upon to be smart, constructive, and policy-focused. He ignored the army of Saudi-funded lobbyists, looking instead for ways to improve JASTA, not for reasons to destroy it.

Sessions’ steadfastness contrasts favorably to how we were treated by other senators who cynically voted to override the President’s veto prior to the November election, and then immediately colluded with the Saudi government against the 9/11 families as soon as they returned to Washington a few weeks later.

Thanks to JASTA, 9/11 families can now pursue accountability from the Saudi Government and others who funded and supported the terrorist attacks, just as the FBI and Justice Department have been disclosing new evidence pointing to Saudi government employee involvement in the horrendous attacks. 

The continued Saudi panic over JASTA shows that the accountability promised in this new law is already working as a deterrent to nations who are lax in preventing government resources from flowing to terror groups.

We will always be grateful for the arduous work of the bill sponsors, as well as that of those senators like Jeff Sessions who took a sincere interest in improving JASTA so it could become law.

Terry Strada is the National Chair of the 9/11 Families & Survivors United for Justice Against Terrorism.


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