The post-Times Square hysteria continues in the Congress. In all-too-typical fashion, the “security-at-all-costs” crowd, led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, has introduced legislation that would empower federal bureaucrats to strip an American of their citizenship if the government decides they might have provided some sort of support to a terrorist organization.
On the surface, of course, many Americans likely would tend to support a law stripping citizenship from someone who has been proved to have engaged in terrorist acts against our country or our military; and Sen. Lieberman’s bill — the Terrorist Expatriation Act of 2010 – will therefore probably garner some not-insignificant degree of support in the Congress. Such support, however, on more careful reading of the legislation, would be misplaced and set a dangerous precedent.
American citizenship is a right enjoyed by anyone born in this country or who has satisfied the requirements to become a naturalized citizen. Moreover, under current federal law one can lose their citizenship if they engage in actions clearly indicating a desire to renounce their American citizenship. Thus, if a person takes an oath of allegiance to a foreign government, or serves as an officer in the military of another nation, they can be deemed to have renounced their citizenship and lose it. Also, if a person if convicted in a civilian court or in a military court martial of committing crimes such as treason or conspiring to overthrow the government, they can lose their citizenship.
Importantly, given the constitutional basis on which someone gains American citizenship, it is not easily lost; current law and Supreme Court rulings provide that it can be taken for specified reasons only after a court proceeding. Contrary to these important principles, however, this latest, knee-jerk response to a single attempted terrorist act, would empower a non-elected government official (the secretary of state or a designee) to strip away a person’s American citizenship (regardless of whether the person gained citizenship by birth or naturalization) without any court proceeding. In other words, a natural-born American citizen could find themselves stripped of their citizenship by a government bureaucrat without ever having had their day in court.
Such cavalier treatment of a fundamental right granted in the Constitution should trouble every member of Congress and every American who understands and supports constitutionally-based governance; especially perhaps conservatives, who at least in the past shared a healthy distrust of government power. Unfortunately, in the post-911 world, such “technicalities” as constitutional rights and guarantees often take a back seat to so-called “security concerns.”
Security-firsters are pushing this current legislation because they want people like the failed Times Square bomber to be interrogated and tried by military commissions rather than courts of law; and military commissions do not, at least for now, have jurisdiction to try US citizens.
Another troubling aspect of the Terrorist Expatriation Act is that a person could be stripped of citizenship even if they do not actively engage in violent acts of any sort; but if they simply provide some sort of “material support” to an organization designated by the federal government as “terrorist.” Here again, a layperson might support such a move with a quick, “hell, yes.” The discerning analyst, however, would be far less quick to grant such power to a federal bureaucrat. Why? Because “material support” is a vague and imprecise term subject to wide interpretation; encompassing perhaps nothing more than a person contributing money to an organization that provides relief to people in a faraway part of the world in a country where terrorists might be operating.
The proposed law suffers from other vagaries; such as subjecting a person to involuntary loss of citizenship if they support “hostilities” not against the United States, but against some other nation that itself might be supporting American armed forces. Such tenuous acts should not form the basis for involuntary loss of citizenship, especially without a full hearing and trial in a legitimate court of law.
Given that current laws criminalizing acts of terrorism are broad-reaching and carry stiff punishment (including the death penalty) upon conviction, these latest efforts to significantly expand the reach and power of federal officials, and correspondingly diminish the scope of constitutional protection for US citizens, are not only unconstitutional but totally unnecessary.