High Court Upholds Anti-Terror Law

The Supreme Court has upheld the government's ban on providing advice, food or even medicine to any group designated as a terror group. The ruling preserves one of the Obama administration's most important legal tools in fighting terrorism.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a federal law that makes it a crime to provide support to a terrorist organization, even when that support is aimed at a peaceful resolution of a conflict.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: The so-called Material Support Law makes it crime punishable by 15 years in prison for anyone to give support to any of the four dozen groups currently designated by the secretary of state as terrorist organizations.

Yesterday, all nine Supreme Court justices upheld the ban on money to these organizations, concluding that money is fungible, and thus that even though a charitable contribution might be for a hospital, the donation would free up other money for terrorism.

But the court split sharply on the issue of peaceful and otherwise legal advocacy on behalf of some organizations designated as terrorist.

While there's no serious dispute about some groups on the list, like al-Qaida, human rights groups have criticized the list as lacking coherence. In addition, many organizations designated as terrorist have both political and military wings.

One of those is the Kurdish worker's party known as the PKK. Human rights organizations in the U.S. wanted to offer training to the PKK on how to resolve its grievances peacefully through the U.N. But Congress, the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations have insisted that such training would interfere with attempts with the PKK and other terrorist organizations international pariahs.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court agreed by a six to three vote. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that Congress and the executive branch had made a judgment that to allow such peaceful and otherwise legal advocacy would lend an air of legitimacy to the PKK and undermine U.S. relations with Turkey. The court, he said, should defer to such judgments.

Georgetown Law Professor David Cole argued the case on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project.

Professor DAVID COLE (Law, Georgetown University): The bottom line is that the court has now said that the first amendment permits Congress to make human rights advocacy and peacemaking into a terrorist crime.

TOTENBERG: Juan Zarate, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, saw things differently.

Mr. JUAN ZARATE (Former Deputy National Security Adviser): The purpose of this law is to put a virtual fence around the terrorist organizations that have been designated by the U.S. government, and to disallow any support directly, of any type, that would help these groups advocate their cause.

TOTENBERG: Several experts said that yesterday's ruling would have little practical effect on how the Justice Department operates. Kenneth Wainstein, former assistant attorney general for national security, says the Material Support Law has been the workhorse of the antiterrorism effort since 9/11. But, he added:

Mr. KENNETH WAINSTEIN (Former Assistant Attorney General for National Security): The reality is the vast majority of the Material Support cases that are brought by the Department of Justice every year involved traditional support to terrorist groups, like money to al-Qaida or arms to terrorist organizations.

TOTENBERG: But human rights and peace-promoting organizations, like the Carter Center, were stunned by the ruling. President Carter has said that a decision like this would actually hinder peaceful resolution of violent conflicts. Our work to end violence, he said, sometimes requires interacting directly with groups that have engaged in it as a way to give up violence.

It was precisely such contact with the IRA and Ireland, and the African National Congress in South Africa, he said, that led to peaceful resolution of those conflicts.

The Supreme Court did impose some caveats on its decision. The six-man majority declared that if a U.S. citizen speaks independently and without consulting a terrorist organization, he cannot be prosecuted for violating the Materials Support Law.

But that was small solace to human rights groups. ACLU legal director Steven Shapiro filed a brief on behalf of the Carter Center and other human rights groups.

Mr. STEVEN SHAPIRO (Legal Director, ACLU): It's hard to know where the line is. And the penalties in this statute are so severe that I think many people are now going to reconsider what they can do and what they can't do.

TOTENBERG: Georgetown's Professor Cole said he doubted very much that anyone would be willing, as they have in the past, to write an op-ed piece, for instance, on behalf of the PKK or any other group on the terrorist list.

Prof. COLE: It has tremendous chilling effect. If you risk spending 15 years of your life in jail for writing an op-ed, you're not going to write that op-ed.

TOTENBERG: Dissenting from yesterday's decision were Justices Breyer, Ginsburg and Sotomayor.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.