A federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of a controversial provision in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act regarding the detention of terrorism suspects.
Last year, debate raged over the multi-billion dollar defense funding bill. Civil liberties advocates and others warned that provisions in the NDAA of 2012 could allow the military to detain terrorism suspects on U.S. soil without charge or trial, even if they were U.S. citizens.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan, an Obama appointee, ruled on Wednesday that Section 1021 of the law likely violated due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and free press rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
A group of journalists and activists had filed a lawsuit against President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and a slew of lawmakers in January. They claimed Section 1021 of the $662 billion defense spending bill was unconstitutionally vague, and put them in fear of being arrested and held in military custody indefinitely.
One of the plaintiffs, journalist Chris Hedges, had argued that as part of his job he has direct communications with persons who are likely to be deemed engaged in hostilities with the United States. Section 1021 covers anyone who has “substantially supported” or “directly supported” “al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.”
“The statute at issue places the public at undue risk of having their speech chilled for the purported protection from al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ‘associated forces’ – i.e., ‘foreign terrorist organizations,’” Forrest wrote in her opinion. “The vagueness of Section 1021 does not allow the average citizen, or even the government itself, to understand with the type of definiteness to which our citizens are entitled, or what conduct comes within its scope.”
Lawyers representing the government had argued that the law merely restated the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), a law that allowed the President to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against those who had perpetrated the September 11 terrorist attacks. But Forrest noted that the AUMF was “tied directly and only to those involved in the events of 9/11,” while Section 1021 was much less specific.
Forrest said the issue could be resolved if Congress adds definitional language to the statute.
“Ever since the law has come out, and because the law is so amorphous, the problem is you’re not sure what you can say, what you can do and what context you can have,” Hedges told the Associated Press.
[Behind bars image via Shutterstock]