Friday, February 29, 2008

Caught up in the Anti-Terrorism Dragnet

Last year I blogged about the Chiquita Fruit Company case where the corporation pled guilty to materially supporting terrorists and I asked several hypotethical questions about how far the government could go in criminalizing behavior that had some indirect link to terrorism.

Mother Jones' Eric Umansky explores this topic in his article, Department of Pre-Crime:

Material-support laws are not like other laws. Central to what the Department of Justice has described as an approach of "strategic overinclusiveness,"....

There's a reason material support has become such a popular charge, a reason it's central to many of the government's most questionable cases: The laws are a prosecutor's dream.

They don't require evidence of a plot or even of a desire to help terrorists. They give the government a shot at convictions traditional criminal laws could never provide. "The administration adopted the preventive paradigm, i.e. 'We've got to stop people before they've done something wrong,'" says David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor who's the author of several books about the effect of anti-terror laws on the justice system. "There's tremendous pressure to expand grounds of criminal activity, to prosecute people who might represent a threat. The material-support provisions have been the principal vehicle for pushing that envelope."....

The idea for the material-support laws first came in the early 1980s, when, after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and a string of high-profile kidnappings of Americans abroad, the Reagan administration decided that U.S. law wasn't up to the task of prosecuting people who supported terrorists. Presidents have long had the power to impose embargoes against countries. Shouldn't they be able to do the same against terrorist groups?....

It took the 1993 World Trade Center bombing for Congress to put the material-support concept into the federal criminal code...

The law targeted any support of terrorist activity. But sending money to the ira for an orphanage, for example, wouldn't be illegal. And to law enforcement, that meant the law didn't go far enough. "Every once in a while we'd see a note on a check saying 'Mujahideen,'" jokes Jeff Breinholt, who heads the Department of Justice's terrorist financing unit. "But usually they didn't do that." So in early 1995 the Clinton administration introduced a bill banning the donation of any money, no matter its purpose, to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. The idea makes some sense: Should you be allowed to give to the Tamil Tigers' social-services arm? Even if you could be sure the money was going only to build a school, it frees up money for the Sri Lankan guerrilla group to spend elsewhere.

Two months later, when Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Congress not only embraced Clinton's proposal, it greatly expanded it. Apart from an exemption for "medicine and religious materials," the new law, part of the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, criminalized all knowing support to terrorist-designated organizations—whatever the purpose of that support might be.

From the beginning, civil libertarians criticized the statute's potential for overreach. And federal courts have since ruled that some types of banned support are too vaguely defined—rulings that have largely stemmed from a suit in which a human rights organization sued to teach humanitarian law to a Kurdish group designated as a terrorist organization. (The Supreme Court has yet to weigh in.) In an even more farcical case, brought in 2006, a small-time satellite TV operator in Brooklyn allegedly offered to sell a government informant a satellite dish with access to al-Manar, better known as Hezbollah TV. In turn, the government charged the man, Javed Iqbal, with multiple counts of material support and announced he could face up to 110 years in prison. (The trial is set for June.)|Department of Pre-Crime - Mother Jones|
I've long thought that the United States is a police state, but a rather clean, efficient police state that favors white bread attorneys like yours truly.

But now we're getting into some serious thought crime legislation, and it all seems so reasonable in retrospect.

The road to Hell is paved with good intentions...

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