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A Lieberman loser

The senator's bill to revoke the citizenship of U.S. terrorism suspects is unnecessary.

May 10, 2010

Less than a week after the arrest of Faisal Shahzad in the failed Times Square bombing, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced what he called the Terrorist Expatriation Act. A better name would be the Terrorist Exploitation Act.

The legislation would allow the State Department to revoke the citizenship of Americans who engage in hostilities against the United States or its allies or provide resources or support to a foreign terrorist organization. Lieberman's proposal — which he acknowledges could not be retroactively applied to Shahzad — is unnecessary and open to abuse.

The senator notes that current law says an American forfeits citizenship by serving in the armed forces of an enemy nation. His legislation, he argues, would simply update that provision by applying it to those who join forces with "stateless actors" who commit violence against this country. But the language of the bill is broader than current law, targeting not only those who take up arms against the United States but also those who provide material support to groups on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.

The term "material support" is notoriously elastic. The Supreme Court will soon rule on the government's contention that the concept includes offering advice to a terrorist group about how it can pursue its objectives without violence. Whether someone retains U.S. citizenship shouldn't turn on such an amorphous notion. In introducing his bill, Lieberman suggested that it would apply to anyone who "affiliates with a foreign terrorist organization " — an even looser standard.

Lieberman is candid about why he wants to deprive suspected U.S. terrorists of their citizenship: to deny them due-process rights available to Americans. Referring to Adam Gadahn, an American spokesman for Al Qaeda, Lieberman explained: "If our proposal becomes law, the State Department could immediately begin revoking Gadahn's citizenship and, if he is captured at some point in the future, he could then be tried by military commission as the unprivileged enemy belligerent that he is." Never mind that Gadahn already has been indicted for treason and that, even if the law were broadened as Lieberman proposes, the government would have to conclude that Gadahn and other terrorists intended to relinquish their citizenship.

The Lieberman bill is unnecessary as well as unjust. Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution authorizes the prosecution of treason, defined as "levying war against [the United States], or in adhering to [its] enemies, giving them aid and comfort." That language, echoed in a federal statute, would apply to those who fight alongside "stateless actors." That should be good enough for Lieberman.

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