Lieberman’s Dangerous Initiative

Senator Joe Lieberman is going to introduce legislation to the Senate that would strip Americans of their citizenship if they enter into the service of terrorist groups hostile to the US.   It’s not clear how this would work; apparently the suspect would have to be caught overseas and clearly be associated with a terrorist network.

What Lieberman is essentially arguing for is the ability to presume guilt in certain cases and, based on that presumption, strip an American of  his or her citizenship.   Then the suspect does not have the rights an American would to a fair and speedy trial, with the chance to face the accuser, and could presumably be kept captive and interrogated for as long as the terror threat from that or perhaps other terrorist organizations continue.

This is a classic case of fear driving policy in a way that could set a precedent that might undercut the very essence of our democratic Republic.    Now, those supporting this bill would point out that it really is an extension of an existing act which strips citizenship from Americans who serve in hostile armed forces.   A Japanese-American who leaves to fight for Japan in 1941 would, if captured as a POW, be treated like any other POW, and no longer considered a US citizen.

While it seems slight to expand “hostile armed forces of another state” to “terror organizations hostile to the US,” there is one enormous difference.  International politics and international law is centered around states.   When someone enters the military of another state, that is a clear act which, if done voluntarily, explicitly connects that person to their “new” state.

Terror organizations are different.   First, it’s not always clear if people are working with such an organization or understand the nature of that connection.   Let’s assume, however, that most of the time they do.   Most of the time if someone goes and trains with the Taliban of Pakistan, they know they are part of a movement hostile to the US.   How is that really different from joining the German military in 1942?

The first difference seems trivial, but is significant.   A person stripped of his or her citizenship in this way is rendered stateless.  The terror organization may be located in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, but unless the person has dual citizenship, there is no reason for the state in which the terror organization operates to extend any kind of citizenship.   This creates a situation that explicitly goes against international law.   While some in the US don’t think that’s important, the ramifications of breaking basic norms of international law can be serious.

More importantly, while I’m sure proponents of the law can point to cases where it is just as clear to us now as the Japanese American’s decision to join the Japanese army would have been in 1941, one can imagine more tenuous claims.   Let’s say an anti-war activist organization uncovers information about how the US is damaging civilians in Afghanistan.  He could  be arrested, and the military could choose to claim he was working as a terrorist, strip his citizenship, and deny him the ability to get the full story out.  This is not likely to happen, but it is easy to imagine an innocent US citizen being rail roaded and destroyed.

Or, let’s say there is a rise in anti-government terror, with groups internationally working to try to fight against their governments or the UN.   One could imagine a government deciding to silence an effective critic by tying him or her to such an organization if he or she attended a conference overseas that turned out to have participants from or ties with an organization labeled by the US as a terrorist group.  No matter how weak the US case would be, once citizenship is stripped, the rights of the defendant become much harder to protect.  Arguably they could get their day in court, but the path there would be time consuming and uncertain.

And even if neither the Bush nor Obama Administrations would abuse the power so blatantly, what happens if there is further economic decline, oil crises or global instability?  How easy might it be for governments to declare organizations to be terrorist and then use that to silence or eliminate critics?   With foreign armies you have a clear demarcation — the person has to join the military of another state.    Again, joining the military of a hostile state is an objectively clear act which the US cannot re-define.  However, if the government can simply define organizations as terrorist, and then be able to strip citizenship on the assertion someone is associated with them, the chance for abuse of power grows tremendously.

A final objection is that such a law shows disrespect and antipathy for the US justice system.  Is our legal system so flawed that simply granting rights to accused terrorists destroys our ability to get at the truth and punish those who violate the law of the land?  If so, fix our legal system, don’t diminish the Constitution or the rights of individuals.    We should be proud of our system of justice and the high priority we give individual rights.  To scrap those out of fear when things are uncertain is a very dangerous precedent, and one which shows little faith in how the United States operates as a country.

There are very few people who would legitimately be subject to this law, not that many Americans join terror organizations overseas.   Those who do certainly can be handled without creating this potential abuse of power by future governments.    The most dangerous laws are those past in haste, out of fear, in response to an emotional event.   Senator Lieberman’s proposal endangers the very principles he claims he wants to protect, and should be rejected completely and absolutely.

  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on May 6, 2010 - 02:23

    What happened to the days when Lieberman was the reasonable, moderate compromiser that crossed party lines. In recent years I have lost almost all my admiration of Lieberman.

  2. #2 by Eve on May 6, 2010 - 05:08

    Hear, hear. Excellent post and I agree completely.

  3. #3 by patrice on May 7, 2010 - 14:03

    Does this apply to domestic terrorists too, like Tim McVeigh, who don’t have ties to international/external groups?

    I really don’t get Lieberman. I continue to be disappointed by him. Sadly, he’s also “my” senator.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2010 - 17:06

      Hey Patrice, sorry it took awhile to post this, the spam filter thought you were spam. Yikes!

  4. #5 by Diane on May 9, 2010 - 21:37

    Hi Scott,
    I think you are right about this being a very dangerous and slippery slope we do not want to start on. You say “This is not likely to happen, but it is easy to imagine an innocent US citizen being rail roaded and destroyed.” I say it would be very likely to happen and as it became clear of its effect and eventual simplicity it would only get worse and happen more. Anyone could get this rail road if the right circumstances were there and our government seems to have ways of forcing those right circumstances when they want them.

    The ambiguity of a entering into the service of a terrorist group or a connection to a terrorist organization is quite different than fighting in service for a foreign hostile state, as you mention, and our realist mindset on foreign politics doesn’t necessarily comprehend that our world has changed, and our enemies and threats do not necessarily come from antoher state. There is too much wabble room and danger of power corruption in such a law.

    It does show disrespect to our judicial system, and the international laws provided (not that we seem to follow those guidelines very well anyway), and we have done enough pushing of those envelopes over the past decade. We mistreat foreign nationals in captivity in relation to possible terrorist activity or connection, now he – and those with him – wants to strip citizenship away from Americans in order to do the same?

    Take this along with Arizona and it is really starting to feel a tad scary.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on May 12, 2010 - 17:10

      Fear and politics leads to very nasty places, you’re right. As for Arizona, apparently they are now banning “ethnic studies,” another move aimed at school districts with high Latino populations. It looks like in order to make sure the law doesn’t sound as racist as the intent they worded it in a way that would allow the programs they’re targeting to continue. Crazy times.

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