Terrorists should lose citizenship

Today in Washington, common sense solutions to serious policy issues are far too rare. Several weeks ago, I introduced the Revoking Citizenship for Terrorists Act of 2010, H.R. 5166, which pragmatically recognizes that an American citizen who supports a foreign terrorist organization in armed conflict against our nation should lose the rights and privileges of their citizenship. When Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) introduced similar legislation in the Senate, Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) and I eagerly joined them in their effort.

If an individual picks up arms and goes to war against the United States, then I believe that person has effectively renounced their desire to be a U.S. citizen. But the legislation doesn’t even go that far.  Under our legislation, if an individual is found to support a foreign terrorist organization, the State Department can investigate his actions and make an administrative determination that he intended to renounce his citizenship.

Following that determination, the individual can challenge the findings in federal court. Any suggestion the legislation would permit the government to strip citizenship without constitutional due process is transparently without merit.

And the Supreme Court agrees. Notably, my legislation only updates an existing statute adopted in 1944 while the United States was fighting World War II against the armed forces of Japan, Germany and several other nations. As currently written, the law provides that a person can relinquish citizenship by voluntarily engaging in hostilities against the United States on behalf of a foreign nation. As recently as 1980, the Supreme Court validated the constitutionality of that law.  My amending legislation preserves the same burdens of proof on the government, while simply recognizing that in today’s unconventional warfare of terrorism, the same rules should apply to U.S. citizens who support organizations like al Qaeda or the Taliban. 

The objective of our proposed legislation is more than rhetoric.  Should these very dangerous individuals lose their nationality for supporting foreign terrorist organizations, they then also lose their right to litigate in civilian courts on U.S. soil, and instead are subject to a military commission. In addition, they lose the right to be admitted into the United States following detention. These changes could also provide our military clearer authority to address a threat like Anwar al-Awlaki, who as a U.S. citizen residing in Yemen has persistently called for and directed violence against the United States and his fellow Americans.

Last, we cannot accept the premise that a citizen can only renounce his citizenship by explicitly declaring his intent. The question of intent is ultimately for the trier of fact. Any captured terrorist has the right to appear in court and protest that he never intended to abandon his citizenship. In opposition, let the government show how Adam Gadahn destroyed his passport; how al-Awlaki praised the Fort Hood massacre and called on peaceful Muslims to take up arms against the United States; and how Faisal Shahzad attempted to ignite a carload of explosives in the heart of New York City and then simply walked away. The best evidence of what lies in the hearts and minds of men are their actions.

The proposal to accomplish this needed reform has now received bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Now, the president should join our efforts. After all, the administration reportedly has issued a kill or capture order against American Anwar al-Awlaki. The very least we can do is allow the federal government to recognize that al-Awlaki has relinquished his citizenship given his actions against our homeland.

Dent is a member of the Committee on Homeland Security and also serves on the Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee.