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U.S. Laying Down Law on Terror Suspects


WASHINGTON — The U.S. government is relying on a seldom-used but powerful legal tool, an 18th-century law on sedition, to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

With roots in laws that date back more than 200 years, the statute gives the government great flexibility in assembling prosecutions against people who plan but don't carry out criminal acts against the United States.

The government suggested its approach in a recent perjury indictment. The federal grand jury that brought the case against an associate of two of the hijackers is investigating "seditious conspiracy to levy war against the United States," the indictment stated.

Federal prosecutors "appear to be right on the money" in using the sedition law to address possible terrorist collaborators, George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg said.

"To the extent a jihad" or holy war "is invoked against the United States, it's like an announcement that 'I'm putting myself under this statute,' " Saltzburg said.

Prosecutors used the seditious conspiracy law to win convictions in a case against a Muslim cleric and co-defendants who plotted to blow up the United Nations.

Chicago attorney Jeremy Margolis successfully prosecuted four Puerto Rican nationalists for seditious conspiracy in the 1980s for planning to bomb a Marine training center and an Army Reserve facility.

The object of the conspiracy was to change the policies of the U.S. government "as opposed to doing a particular criminal act--blow that up, take that down, shoot that person," Margolis recalled.

Law enforcement officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors are examining other cases in which they might use the sedition law against people who did not carry out attacks but had been in various stages of planning.

The law imposes up to 20-year prison terms when two or more people "conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the government of the United States, or to levy war against them."

The U.S. law on sedition dates back to the 1790s when the Alien and Sedition acts of the John Adams administration targeted people who criticized the government. The acts expired and were not renewed amid a storm of criticism.

A new law passed during the Civil War served as the basis for the current statute.

There were Confederate sympathizers in the North and the law was passed to make it easier to punish people who conspired against the union, said University of Michigan law professor Richard Friedman.

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