Finding the truth behind 9/11

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Next Sunday, Sept. 11, will mark the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attack known simply as 9/11. It wasn’t just one in a litany of attacks on America and the West, another in a long string of brutal, senseless assaults on innocent people carried out in the name of jihad. It was different — different in scope and different in kind and different in consequences.

This attack took 3,000 lives, far more than ever before or ever since in the U.S. It was carried out in the symbolic centers of our government and our economy: at the Pentagon, at the World Trade Center in the heart of New York City’s financial district, itself the heart of global finance, and, nearly, at the White House or the Capitol but for the bravery of passengers on United Airlines Flight 93, whose actions prevented the hijackers of that flight from reaching their intended target. Its consequences included a war and, many insist, the wrong war, one that birthed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

{mosads}Each year at this time, many of us mourn those who were lost, while some mourn their loss all year long. For though a lot of us remember that this worst terrorist incident in history involved 3,000 murders, few of us realize that those victims left their equal number in children. Those 3,000 children were left without a mom or dad — or, we believe quite strongly, the truth about why they grew up without their lost parents.

For almost the number of years that have passed since 9/11, the families of the victims — the families of these children — have been pressing their government for the truth.  They’ve been tirelessly pressing for the whole truth, nothing but the truth — in plain terms, not cleverly constructed report language, not redacted reports and not in the absence of all of the investigative files and reports that are nothing less than vital to our knowing what really happened on that day of carnage, a day that changed America and the world and ultimately orphaned who knows how many children in war and in now countless additional terrorist assaults.

That search for truth is important to all of us. For the families, many of whom I have the privilege and honor of serving as co-counsel, the truth is critical to their efforts to ensure that anyone and everyone who was involved in the attack is held to account. For the rest of us Americans, the truth is just as critical; without it, our government has license to operate in the shadows, to wage wars it perhaps shouldn’t, to sacrifice American lives and fortunes in the interest of policies that might look different if the people and their elected representatives in Congress knew the whole truth.

And this is why the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) deserves a prompt vote in the House of Representatives.

It bears emphasis that JASTA does not in any way dictate the outcome of the litigation arising out of 9/11. Rather, it simply sets forth a basic jurisdictional rule of law that, until relatively recently, was understood, including by the executive branch of our government, to be the law already: namely, that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA), which for nearly half a century has allowed suits against foreign nations in cases alleging injury — a car accident, for example — caused by an employee or agent of that government, applies equally to cases involving allegations of sovereign support, through officials or agents or government-controlled charities, of terrorist attacks that cause injury or death inside the U.S.

Most Americans would be shocked that this is even a subject of debate. But it is. The administration has registered objection to JASTA but only through the State Department and the White House spokesman — not the president himself — and the spokesman has only gone so far as to say the he cannot imagine the president signing JASTA in its current form. Thus, room has been left for the president to sign the bill or, at the least, allow it to become law without the president’s signature. 

Some opponents argue that JASTA would encourage other countries to sue the U.S. or its officials. This so-called reciprocity argument is hollow, and the administration surely must know it is. The FSIA has allowed suits against sovereigns that cause personal injury or death for nearly half a century. That’s why the Justice Department expressed the view in a Supreme Court filing in 2004 that the FSIA authorizes suits in terrorism cases “like 9/11.” Neither the FSIA nor this earlier position of our executive led in all those decades to the passage of a flood of retaliatory legislation. And JASTA won’t now.

JASTA provides jurisdiction where there is sovereign support of a terrorist attack; it is premised on an established and clear legal history distinguishing acts of war and acts of terrorism. Fundamentally, we don’t outsource our acts of war to terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Nor do we provide tangible support to “charitable” organizations that have been designated as having terrorist affiliations that are a danger to our people.

Put simply, this reciprocity argument demeans our foreign policy and our military and intelligence services when it equates what we do to fight terrorism with what a few other countries do to support of terrorism.

JASTA deserves a vote. If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is right when it says that none of its agents aided and abetted the 9/11 attack, then it too should welcome the sunlight that JASTA will shine on the whole of the 9/11 story. 

Those 3,000 children of 9/11 deserve JASTA. So does every American.

Quinn is co-counsel to more than 2,000 family members of 9/11 victims. He practices law in Washington, D.C., and served as counsel to the president of the United States during the Clinton administration.


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