American Tied to Al-Qaida Charged with Treason

For the first time in half a century, an American has been charged with treason. The United States charged Californian Adam Gadahn with the offense Wednesday. According to the indictment, he has appeared in several al-Qaida videos calling for violence against America.

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For more the 50 years, no American had been charged with treason. That changed yesterday. Here's NPR's Ari Shapiro.

ARI SHAPIRO: Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, a number of American citizens have been indicted for crimes related to terrorism. Adam Gadahn is the first to be charged with treason. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty made the announcement.

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (U.S. Deputy Attorney General: He chose to join our enemy and to provide it with aid and comfort by acting as a propagandist for al-Qaida.

SHAPIRO: In the last few years, Gadahn has appeared in several al-Qaida videos. According to the indictment, the videos are full of calls to violence. He's quoted as saying, September 11th was but the opening salvo of the global war on America. The magnitude and ferocity of what is coming your way will make you forget all about September 11th.

In another video, he shares the screen with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. This footage comes from the video-sharing site, YouTube.

Mr. ADAM GADAHN (Charged with Treason): We disbelieve in and reject every false God, whether it be a rock or a human being or a government with its polytheistic constitution, courts, and laws. Or an international organization like the United Nations with its Security Council, whose resolutions never to fail to side with the Zionist crusader fascists.

SHAPIRO: Gadahn's grandfather was Jewish. His father changed the family name from Pearlman and raised Adam Gadahn on a goat farm in Orange County, California. The son converted to Islam and traveled to Pakistan. He adopted the nom de guerre Azzam the American, and eventually began working for al-Qaida. Deputy Attorney General McNulty says his role appears to have primarily been as a mouthpiece.

Mr. MCNULTY: To the best of my knowledge, it's propaganda. I don't have any evidence - or information, I should say - regarding involvement in planning other attacks.

SHAPIRO: That could make it more difficult for the government to prove that Gadahn committed treason. Jenny Martinez is a law professor at Stanford University.

Professor JENNY MARTINEZ (Stanford University): The First Amendment restricts the government's ability to punish people for acts of speech, and so simply saying that you want to overthrow the government or even that you think the government should be violently overthrown is protected First Amendment speech unless it's likely to lead to imminent lawless action.

SHAPIRO: In addition, she says, past cases have established a narrow definition of what counts as treason. But there's another count in this indictment: material support of terrorism. And that charge is much easier to prove. Talk of a trial is all hypothetical. The government doesn't have Gadahn in custody. They suspect he's somewhere in or around Pakistan.

Administration critics have asked why the Justice Department announced this indictment now, less than a month before a heated mid-term election. Justice Department officials deny that the move was an attempt to shift the focus away from a Congressional sex scandal and back to national security. Deputy Attorney General McNulty said this announcement may make it harder for Gadahn to operate and easier for the U.S. to get him.

Mr. MCNULTY: It's time now to get the message out in order to get this person in our custody, perhaps to find the assistance that we need, and also to send a message that this kind of conduct will be met with the toughest charges that we can bring.

SHAPIRO: In addition to issuing the indictment, the government added Gadahn yesterday to the FBI's list of most-wanted terrorists, and they put a bounty on his head of a million dollars.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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