Legislative proposal to revoke citizenship of accused terrorist called unconstitutional

By Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010; 6:58 PM

The legislation Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) introduced Thursday to strip the citizenship of Americans accused of engaging in terrorism against the United States or its foreign allies is so broadly worded that it may be unconstitutional, two key lawmakers said.

"If they're a U.S. citizen, until they're convicted of some crime, I don't know how you would attempt to take their citizenship away," House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) told reporters Thursday, according to Bloomberg News. "It would be pretty difficult under the U.S. Constitution."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said earlier that he could potentially support the Lieberman proposal, said Wednesday that he opposed it.

"The senator was approached abruptly in the hall of the Capitol by a reporter before he had even heard about the legislation or what it did," Schumer's office said Wednesday. "Having learned about the proposal, he believes it would be found unconstitutional in this context and would also be ineffective," Schumer's office said. "There are much better ways of obtaining information from terrorists."

Lieberman cited examples from the accused Times Square bomber to Americans who train with Somali Islamic fundamentalists as he introduced the legislation, which was co-sponsored by Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and Charlie Dent (R-Pa.). The legislation would target Americans who join or support a group designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, and those who support or engage in hostilities against the United States or its allies.

The bill would, among other things, authorize the State Department to revoke the passports and prevent the return of Americans who join or support such groups while overseas. It would also allow citizenship to be stripped from Americans who support groups that target U.S. allies, such as Israel or India, pending a court appeal.

"Our enemies today are stateless actors who don't wear uniforms and who plot attacks against Americans abroad and here in the United States, specifically targeting civilians in violation of the laws of war," said Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

He cited accused Fort Hood shooter Nidal M. Hasan, accused Arkansas Army recruitment center shooter Abdul Hakim Muhammad and Times Square bomb-attempt suspect Faisal Shahzad -- all citizens -- as examples of why a change in statutes on the books since World War II was needed.

The bill would amend an existing federal statute that outlines seven ways U.S. nationals can lose their citizenship when they perform specified acts -- such as treason or joining a foreign army at war with the United States -- "with the intention of relinquishing United States nationality."

The White House was dismissive. "I have not heard anybody inside the administration that is supportive of that idea," press secretary Robert Gibbs said at Thursday's briefing.

Poll: Is it ever OK to strip an American of his or her citizenship?

© 2010 The Washington Post Company