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Lieberman, Brown Proposal to Strip Terror Suspects of US Citizenship Is “Constitutional Buffoonery,” Says Attorney

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Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts introduced a measure Thursday to strip Americans charged with terrorism of their US citizenship. We speak with Shayana Kadidal, senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who says the proposal is “constitutional buffoonery.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Capitol Hill, the ramifications of the failed Times Square bombing attempt by a Pakistani-born, recently naturalized American citizen have taken a new twist. On Thursday, lawmakers in both houses of Congress introduced legislation that would allow the government to revoke American citizenship from people suspected of allying with terrorists. The Terrorist Expatriation Act, co-sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Scott Brown, Republican of Massachusetts, would allow the State Department to revoke the citizenship of people suspected of providing support to terrorist groups. Senator Lieberman introduced the bill at a press conference Thursday.

    SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN: Over the last two days, after I said I was going to introduce this bill, many have said or worried that it goes too far. But remember, this bill only updates an existing statute that has been on the books for seven years to account for the terrorist enemy that we are fighting today. So if the President can authorize the killing of a United States citizen because he is fighting for a foreign terrorist organization, in this case al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, that is involved in attacking America and killing Americans, we can also have a law that allows the US government to revoke Awlaki’s citizenship and that of other American terrorists who have cast their lot — American citizens who have cast their lot with terrorist organizations aimed at destroying our country. Those who join such groups join our enemy and should no longer be entitled to the rights and privileges of American citizenship.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Senator Joe Lieberman. The bill’s co-sponsor in the Senate, Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, brushed off any civil liberties concerns around the bill.

    SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. It reflects the changing nature of war in recent events. And war has moved into a new dimension. Individuals who pick up arms — this is what I believe — have effectively denounced their citizenship. And this legislation simply memorializes that effort. So somebody who wants to burn their passport, well, let’s help them along, and let’s take away that citizenship, because I feel the most important civil liberty is to keep our people safe and alive, period.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she supports the spirit of the measure. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would take a hard look at the bill, while noting that US citizenship is a privilege and not a right. But Republican Congress member John Boehner questioned the constitutionality of the bill, and White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday that no one in the White House supports the measure.

    ROBERT GIBBS: I have not heard anybody inside the administration that’s been supportive of that idea.

    REPORTER: Does that mean the administration opposes it?

    ROBERT GIBBS: I have not heard anybody that supports it at all.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the bill introduced by Senator Lieberman, we’re joined here in New York by Shayana Kadidal. He’s a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and wrote a piece for the Huffington Post Thursday titled “Senator Lieberman’s Latest Constitutional Buffoonery.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why “buffoonery”?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, you know, maybe that’s a little harsh, because when Senator Lieberman was in law school, the law was that the federal government could take away your citizenship. There were a whole series of cases, mostly involving draft evasion, where the military stripped away citizenship for people who had refused to serve in the — you know, to show up after they were drafted. But in 1967, the Supreme Court overturned that whole line of cases and said that the government, federal government, actually has no power to take away your citizenship against your will. The only way you can lose your citizenship is if you voluntarily relinquish it. And the only catch is that certain things that you do may be taken by courts as a sign that you have the intention to voluntarily relinquish your citizenship.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and there’s actually been a long string of cases. There was the Meir Kahane case on citizenship. Could you talk about that, as well?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Sure. Well, if you remember Kahane was this sort of ultra-nationalist Israeli American politician, founded the Kach party, which is actually on the Foreign Terrorist Organization List. And, you know, he gave speeches and talked to journalists, where he said things like, “I don’t think dual citizenship should exist. I’m only keeping it so that I can travel back to the United States and go on speaking tours.” And he had a court case in 1987, where the Reagan administration tried to take away his US citizenship. And the court said no. You know, he didn’t —-

JUAN GONZALEZ: And they tried to take it away because he was elected to the Israeli parliament?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Right, to the Knesset. You know, if you look at the State Department’s website now, it has a long list of things which it says will strip away your citizenship -— serving in a foreign military, serving in a foreign government in a policy capacity, naturalizing to foreign citizenship. And actually, none of these things, you know, by themselves, will take away your citizenship. They’re only signs that you may have had the intent to voluntarily give up your citizenship. But courts are very skeptical, as that Kahane case shows.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying she supports the spirit of this legislation?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, I guess, you know, what can one say about that sort of thing? I think it’s kind of amazing that none of these people realize that the federal government just completely lacks the power to take away citizenship.

But, you know, the bottom line is that it’s unclear what this would have changed in terms of dealing with the Times Square bomber. This is a person who was interrogated before he was given Miranda warnings under the existing kind of public safety exemption for Miranda, then was given Miranda warnings and kept on talking, which is what happens with most suspects who are brought into custody, whether it’s on terrorism charges or otherwise. And since a court has to get involved in taking away anyone’s citizenship, it’s unclear how this bill would have changed the interrogation of a suspect immediately upon being brought into custody.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about this issue of whether citizenship is a privilege or a right?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, the Supreme Court has made it absolutely clear that it’s — you know, whether you’re born a citizen or naturalized to citizenship, it’s, in this country, under our Constitution, the people are sovereign. That’s why the government doesn’t have the power to take our citizenship away from us. It’s something that you can only give away voluntarily.

AMY GOODMAN: And this idea of “if you are allied with a terrorist”?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Mm-hmm, right. Well, you know, there are two halves to this bill. One part says that you can lose your citizenship for violating the material support statute. But we have a case at the Supreme Court right now where the government has insisted that writing an op-ed in favor of Hamas, a group on the Foreign Terrorist Organization List, constitutes material support. So people who did that could lose their citizenship. Our clients want to do things like give nonviolent conflict resolution training to rebel groups in conflict zones that happen to be on the Foreign Terrorist Organization List. Our clients could lose their citizenship as a result.

And then the second half of the bill talks about essentially anyone who fills the standard for detention at Guantánamo can lose their citizenship. And if you’ll remember, in the early days of the litigation back in 2004, the government said that a little old lady in Switzerland who wrote a check to an orphanage, and it turned out the orphanage was a front for al-Qaeda, well, she could lose her citizenship, if she was an American citizen happening to live in Switzerland, under this statute that’s been proposed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do think has to be done now?

SHAYANA KADIDAL: Well, hopefully this will just go the way of a lot of other sort of bits of lunacy that are proposed in the Senate and the House and, you know, will die away. I think probably the most effective talking point for our side is that it wouldn’t have affected the interrogation of the Times Square suspect in any way.

AMY GOODMAN: Shayana Kadidal, we thank you very much for being with us, senior managing attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. His latest piece is “Senator Lieberman’s Latest Constitutional Buffoonery.” It appears at the Huffington Post.

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