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 CornynLawmakers want meeting with Trump administration to take US-Mexico border trade Rocky rollout for Senate healthcare bill The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-TX), Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerFCC advances proposal to unmask blocked caller ID in threat cases Trump: Pelosi's leadership good for the GOP Live coverage: Senate GOP unveils its ObamaCare repeal bill 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 ObamaTrump notes 'election meddling by Russia' in tweet criticizing Obama Trump slams Obama for doing 'nothing' about Russia before the election OPINION: Dear media, Americans don't care about Obama's legacy 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 McCainFrustrated Dems say Obama botched Russia response Coats: Trump seemed obsessed with Russia probe The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill MORE (R-AZ), Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (R-SC), and Bob CorkerBob CorkerPolicymakers forget duty to protect taxpayers from financial failures Overnight Defense: GOP chairman moves ahead with 0B defense bill | Lawmakers eye 355 ship navy | Senate panel seeks answers on shoot down of Syrian jet Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump tweetstorm on Russia probe | White House reportedly pushing to weaken sanctions bill | Podesta to testify before House Intel 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 SessionsJeff SessionsSally Yates slams Sessions on criminal justice reform Preet Bharara emailed DOJ about phone call from Trump: report Sessions backs LGBT Pride Month event MORE (R-AL), Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKobach fined over Trump meeting memo OPINION: Dear media, Americans don't care about Obama's legacy Make America’s classroom and workplaces safe again 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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