Saying that citizens who become terrorists are at war with the U.S., lawmakers on Capitol Hill introduced a bill Thursday to let the government strip them of their citizenship - and stirred up a debate over what tools should be used to fight the war on terrorism.
Under a 1940 law, the State Department already can withdraw citizenship from those who join an enemy's armed forces, and the lawmakers said it's time to update the law by adding terrorism to the list of reasons, particularly because the threat of homegrown terrorism is increasing.
"Our enemies today are even more willing than the Nazis or fascists were to kill innocent civilian Americans here in our homeland," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, who is leading the bipartisan push.
The lawmakers argued that those who engage in terrorism have shown an intent to renounce their citizenship - the standard set in a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that rejected an effort to void the 1940 law. The court said Congress can decide there are some actions people take that prove they intended to renounce their citizenship.
But both administration officials and congressional leaders, however, seemed uncertain about going down that path.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said they worried about constitutional implications.
"I like the spirit of it, but I'd like to know what the trigger of it is," Mrs. Pelosi said. "If somebody is on a watch list or do-not-fly list, does that constitute grounds for them losing citizenship?"
And White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said stripping citizenship wasn't an effective solution, while a State Department spokesman said they were worried about taking action based on suspicion rather than on a criminal conviction.
Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said all sides should be worried by how much power Mr. Lieberman's proposal turns over to the State Department. That's compounded, he said, by the government's history of mistakes on the no-fly list and with some of those detained at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Mr. Anders said the definitions used in the bill could open people up to potential action for giving money to an organization the government thinks is involved in terrorism, or for visiting a training camp.
"It's kind of a good attention-getting political game for Lieberman to do this. He certainly is getting a lot of attention, but at the end of the day, why is he doing this?" Mr. Anders said. "No terrorism act is going to be stopped by doing this; no terrorist is going to get caught by doing this."
Mr. Lieberman said his bill could be seen as a reaction to Saturday's failed Times Square bombing attempt, for which Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been arrested.
Mr. Lieberman said the law couldn't be applied retroactively, as in the Times Square case, but his bill could be used to target someone such as Adam Gadahn, a U.S.-born spokesman for al Qaeda, or Americans who have been recruited to fight for al-Shabab, a radical group in Somalia.
"If our proposal becomes law, the State Department could immediately begin revoking Gadahn's citizenship and that of other American citizens we know are involved in terrorist organizations abroad. And if they were captured at some point in the future, they could then be tried by military commission as the unprivileged enemy belligerents that they are," Mr. Lieberman said.
Mr. Lieberman was joined in writing the bill by Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, and two House members from Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep Jason Altmire and Republican Rep. Charlie Dent.
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