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Supreme Court to Take Up PATRIOT Act With Review of Humanitarian Aid Case

In its first review of the PATRIOT Act, the Court will rule on an anti-terror law outlawing any aid to groups on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.

JUAN GONZALEZ: For the first time, the Supreme Court will review part of the PATRIOT Act. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court announced it will decide the constitutionality of a controversial anti-terrorism law that makes it a crime to give any form of aid, including humanitarian assistance, to groups on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

The material support law was first adopted in 1996 but strengthened by the PATRIOT Act in 2001. The Obama administration has defended the law as a vital part of the nation’s effort to fight terrorism, but civil liberties groups say it essentially allows for guilt by association.

AMY GOODMAN: The Supreme Court case centers on a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Humanitarian Law Project. The group provides nonviolent dispute resolution and human rights advocacy training to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and several groups of Tamil Americans who sought to provide humanitarian relief in war-torn areas of Sri Lanka once controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

We’re joined now by David Cole, attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights representing the Humanitarian Law Project. He’s a law professor at Georgetown University, edited the new book The Torture Memos: Rationalizing the Unthinkable .

David Cole, explain the significance of the Supreme Court looking at the PATRIOT Act for the first time and what your case is based on.

DAVID COLE: Well, this is a particularly broad law, made much broader by the PATRIOT Act, and it allows the government to basically put someone in jail for fifteen years on a terrorism conviction without having proved that the individual engaged in any terrorism, conspired to engage in any terrorism, attempted to engage in any terrorism, provided any support to terrorist activities. Instead, what triggers the crime is simply your doing anything of value for any group that has been put on a blacklist by the Secretary of State.

And so, our clients, Humanitarian Law Project, had been providing human rights advocacy training and peacemaking negotiation assistance to the Kurds in Turkey, essentially encouraging them to use lawful, nonviolent means to resolve their disputes with the Turkish government, by going to Geneva and filing human rights claims, by participating in peace talks and the like. Once this law was put in place, it became a crime for this American human rights group to continue to encourage the Kurds to use lawful, nonviolent means to further their dispute, because the group in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has been labeled a terrorist organization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how many people have actually been prosecuted by the federal government in recent years?

DAVID COLE: Well, it’s interesting. This law was passed, as you indicated, in 1996, but it really was left unenforced until September 11th. Since September 11th, however, it’s been a favorite tool of the government. There have been over a hundred prosecutions. And the reason it’s the favorite tool is precisely because it doesn’t require the government to prove up that an individual actually is connected to any kind of terrorist activity. It allows them to paint with a broad brush. And so, you know, they’ve prosecuted a student in Idaho who simply had a website that had links on its website to other websites that had jihadist rhetoric, and they said that was material support. So it’s been used very, very broadly by the administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t Senator Feingold introduced a bill to amend this aspect of the USA PATRIOT Act?

DAVID COLE: He has. Senator Feingold is, you know, rightly concerned about how sweeping this law is and has sought to narrow it so that it serves its legitimate purpose, which is to cut off support for terrorist activity, while not penalizing people like my clients who are simply trying to engage in speech in furtherance of nonviolence. But thus far, that amendment hasn’t gone very far.