WASHINGTON — The Senate approved by unanimous consent today a bill strongly opposed by the White House that allows families of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue countries that support terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.
The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), passed by unanimous consent.
The bill is also forward-looking: if groups like Hamas or ISIS kill an American on American soil, the bill would enable victims to sue any sponsors of the groups in federal court.
However, the Obama administration fears it would sour relations with Saudi Arabia.
Schumer tweeted that “we’re one step closer to justice for the victims of the 9/11 terror attacks.”
“In their pursuit of justice, 9/11 families were told American law prevented them from pursuing justice against those who funded the attacks,” Schumer continued. “These court rulings were backward, illogical, and wrong & now our JASTA bill has passed with unanimous consent from the Senate.”
“JASTA will help the 9/11 families seek justice & also serve as a deterrent to other nations who’d assist in terror attacks against Americans. Today is a big step forward, but there is work to be done. I urge the House leadership to put JASTA on the floor for a vote immediately.”
Cornyn stressed that the U.S. “needs to use every tool available to stop the financing of terrorism.”
“Victims and families who have lost loved ones in terror attacks deserve the opportunity to seek justice,” Cornyn said in a statement after passage. “I thank Senator Schumer for working with me on this bill, and I’m glad we are one step closer to empowering victims with the ability to hold those who helped perpetrate these horrific acts responsible.”
A month ago, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said their concerns about the bill “are not related to its impact on our relationship with one particular country” but about “this principle of sovereign immunity” that could come back to bite the U.S. government.
“It allows countries to resolve their differences through diplomacy, and not through the courts in one country or the other. We continue to believe that the concerns that we have with Saudi Arabia can be addressed through diplomacy,” Earnest said.
“Of course they’re an important counterterrorism partner to the United States. There are a variety of areas where we work closely together — everything from trying to resolve the situation in Syria, to degrading and ultimately destroying ISIL, to fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, or to counter Iran’s malign activities in the region.”
Passage comes just days after a member of the 9/11 Commission said five Saudi government officials were suspected of strong involvement in the terror network that perpetrated the attacks, but the probe ended before those leads were fully investigated.
State Department press secretary John Kirby told reporters Friday that the administration stands by the official findings of the commission.
“We believe that that work, the 9/11 Commission’s work, provided a definitive statement about the nature of support that came from Saudi Arabia and other countries with respect to al-Qaeda financing. Obviously, it did not determine that the Saudi Government had any intent to support al-Qaeda,” Kirby said. “So our position hasn’t changed on that.”
CIA Director John Brennan told NBC early this month that the commission had “a very clear judgment that there was no evidence that indicated that the Saudi government as an institution or Saudi officials individually had provided financial support to al-Qaeda.”
“I think some people may seize upon that uncorroborated, unvetted information that was in there that was basically just a collation of this information that came out of FBI files, and to point to Saudi involvement, which I think would be very, very inaccurate,” Brennan added.