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Lawmakers unveiled legislation Thursday to strip Americans thought to have joined extremist groups like Al-Qaeda of their citizenship, saying it would make it easier to try or assassinate them.
“Those who join such groups join our enemy and should no longer be entitled to the rights and privileges of American citizens. That’s the bottom line,” said Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, the measure’s lead author.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to welcome the proposal as regards to naturalized Americans, saying those who sided with terrorists were in violation of their oath of citizenship and vowing to “take a hard look” at the bill.
“Clearly United States citizenship is a privilege, it is not a right,” she said.
Taking on critics who say his proposal goes too far, Lieberman pointed to news reports that President Barack Obama signed an order enabling the US military to kill US citizens like radical US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
“If the president can authorize the killing of a United States citizen because he is fighting for a foreign terrorist organization,” he said, “we can also have a law that allows the US government to revoke Awlaki’s citizenship.”
Lieberman said his proposal would make it harder for US nationals who cast their lot with extremists, and train overseas, to return and carry out an attack. And if they do, it would make it possible to try them in military court.
“They will not enjoy the rights and privileges of American citizenship in the legal proceedings against them. That, I believe, will make America safer,” he said at a press conference with three other lawmakers.
“The US military may have more options to use necessary force to neutralize the threat, such as Anwar al-Awlaki, without the concerns associated with targeting an American citizen,” said Republican Representative Charlie Dent.
“I suspect it’d be easier to launch a Hellfire missile at a non-citizen than a citizen,” said Dent, referring to a weapon sometimes fired from US aerial drones at suspected terrorists.
Though inspired by a botched car bombing last weekend in New York’s Times Square, the new bill would not apply to the Pakistani-American arrested and blamed for the attack, Faisal Shahzad.
“The change in law we are proposing cannot be applied to him, but it certainly can be applied to future people accused of terrorist acts like him,” said Lieberman, who cited Awlaki as one example.
The legislation would amend a 70-year-old law passed at the outset of World War II that empowers the US State Department to strip Americans who fight voluntarily for the armed forces of a country at war with the United States of their citizenship.
Lieberman’s proposal covers Americans caught “providing material support or resources” to a foreign group the US State Department has labeled terrorist, or joining or aiding attacks on the United States or its allies.
Lieberman stressed that his proposal did not alter the original law’s holding that the targeted individual must be shown to have had the intent of relinquishing their US citizenship.
But Dent underlined that “if they want to pursue acts of terror, then they clearly do not want to be a citizen of our nation.”
The new proposal would not strip away safeguards in current law, including an individual’s right to challenge in federal court the US State Department’s decision to strip them of their citizenship, with the burden of proof falling on the government.
“This is about the people who are over there right now, training to come back to hurt us,” said Republican Senator Scott Brown.
“If they’ve been identified through their actions or in specific statements that they no longer want to remain United States citizens, well, by golly, let’s help them,” said Brown.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was sympathetic to the “spirit” of the bill but worried about due process rights and noted that the 1940s had also seen the mass imprisonment of Japanese-Americans.
Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner also expressed skepticism, saying: “If they are a US citizen until they’re convicted of some crime, I don’t know how you would attempt to take their citizenship away.”
Copyright © Agence France Presse