Joe Lieberman Means You

>Joe Lieberman's latest exercise in demagoguery -- his plan to strip citizenship rights from Americans allegedly involved in terrorism -- has been quickly and incisively condemned (as "madness" by Andrew Sullivan, among others).  But like Arizona's dangerous, unconstitutional immigration law, it seems likely to garner support from a majority or substantial minority of Americans who will assume that they won't be victimized by it -- that it will only target other people, namely presumptively guilty terrorists.  In fact, Lieberman's proposal, combined with an obscure network of federal laws enabling the executive branch to designate individuals and groups as terrorists, with no due process, would put millions of innocent Americans at risk of arbitrarily losing their citizenship.

When you think about Lieberman's proposal, think about the no-fly list and other voluminous, notoriously inaccurate watch-lists compiled by the government since 9/11.  How do you get on these lists?  You might have the misfortune to share a name with a suspected terrorist or you might engage in an entirely innocent, trivial financial transaction with someone else whose name appears, rightly or wrongly, on a list.

As I noted several years ago, most Americans probably don't know that every time they buy a pretzel on the street, tip a waiter, or hire anyone to contract for any personal or professional service, they might be in danger of violating federal blacklisting law.  By statute and an Executive Order issued shortly after 9/11, all U.S. persons (including all individuals, businesses, and charities,) are prohibited from engaging in economic transactions with anyone named on extensive terrorist watch lists.  A 2007 report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, (detailing "how the watch list ensnares everyday consumers") observes, "Theoretically, before a grocer sells a pint of milk, a deli serves a sandwich, or a doctor treats a patient, they should all be checking the [Treasury] list to make sure they are not assisting a person on the list ...[The Executive Order 13224] extended liability to hair stylists, flower peddlers, hot dog vendors, or any Jane Doe who unwittingly sold a product or service to a designated person."  (It is a tribute to the effectiveness of the gun rights lobby and the idiocies of counter-terror measures that, as I noted here, being named on a watch list will not bar you from buying a gun.)

How will these laws interact with Lieberman's plan?  Pay close attention to his language.  He doesn't just want to strip convicted terrorists of their citizenship.  He is wants to strip citizenship rights from all Americans who "choose to become affiliated with foreign terrorist organizations," and that may mean Americans like you.  Again, under federal law, the "choice" to affiliate or associate with terrorism may be an innocent, unknowing financial sale or purchase, or it may simply entail making a charitable donation for humanitarian purposes to a group that the executive branch suspects of terrorism.

The Supreme Court will soon decide the outer limits of government power to tar and target people arbitrarily for suspected associations or (in Lieberman terms) "affiliations" with terrorists.  It recently heard arguments in Holder v Humanitarian Law Project, a very important case brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights, involving a challenge to federal prohibitions on lending "material support" to groups suspected of terrorism.  (The case has a lengthy and complicated litigation history dating back to the late 1990s.)  As attorney David Cole has stressed, "This statute is so sweeping that it treats human rights advocates as criminal terrorists, and threatens them with 15 years in prison for advocating nonviolent means to resolve disputes."  If Joe Lieberman and his colleagues (like John McCain and maybe Chuck Schumer) have their way, human rights advocates and millions of other Americans, like you, could be threatened with loss of citizenship too.