NDAA's 'Indefinite Detention' Provisions Unconstitutional, says Judge

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Common Dreams

NDAA's 'Indefinite Detention' Provisions Unconstitutional, says Judge

An Obama-appointed judge rules provisions of NDAA likely violate the 1st and 5th Amendments

by
Common Dreams staff

President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law last December. (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

A federal judge in New York on Wednesday ruled in favor of a group of civilian activists and journalists and struck down highly controversial 'indefinite detention' and 'material support' provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last December. In their suit, the plaintiffs stated they could be detained 'indefinitely' for their constitutionally protected activities. Citing the 'vagueness' of certain language in the bill, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest -- who was appointed to the court by Obama -- agreed, and said the law could have "chilling impact on First Amendment rights" for journalists, activists, and potentially all US citizens.

"An individual could run the risk of substantially supporting or directly supporting an 'associated force' without even being aware that he or she was doing so," the judge said.

The ruling came as part of a lawsuit brought by seven plaintiffs — Chris Hedges, Dan Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Birgitta Jonsdottir, Alexa O’Brien, Kai Wargall, and Jennifer Bolen — alleging that the NDAA violates ”both their free speech and associational rights guaranteed by the First Amendment as well as due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

Salon's Glenn Greenwald, who has written critically and extensively of the NDAA, called the ruling "a sweeping victory for the plaintiffs."

"This is an extraordinary and encouraging decision," Greenwald continues, though he noted that many caveats still must be applied. "This is only a preliminary injunction (though the judge made it clear that she believes plaintiffs will ultimately prevail). It will certainly be appealed and can be reversed. There are still other authorities (including the AUMF) which the DOJ can use to assert the power of indefinite detention. Nonetheless, this is a rare and significant limit placed on the U.S. Government’s ability to seize ever-greater powers of detention-without-charges, and it is grounded in exactly the right constitutional principles: ones that federal courts and the Executive Branch have been willfully ignoring for the past decade."

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The Associated Press reports:

A judge on Wednesday struck down a portion of a law giving the government wide powers to regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists, saying it left journalists, scholars and political activists facing the prospect of indefinite detention for exercising First Amendment rights.

"A tremendous step forward for the restoration of due process and the rule of law"
-- Chris Hedges
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan said in a written ruling that a single page of the law has a "chilling impact on First Amendment rights." She cited testimony by journalists that they feared their association with certain individuals overseas could result in their arrest because a provision of the law subjects to indefinite detention anyone who "substantially" or "directly" provides "support" to forces such as al-Qaida or the Taliban. She said the wording was too vague and encouraged Congress to change it.

"An individual could run the risk of substantially supporting or directly supporting an associated force without even being aware that he or she was doing so," the judge said.

She said the law also gave the government authority to move against individuals who engage in political speech with views that "may be extreme and unpopular as measured against views of an average individual.

"That, however, is precisely what the First Amendment protects," Forrest wrote.

She called the fears of journalists in particular real and reasonable, citing testimony at a March hearing by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Christopher Hedges, who has interviewed al-Qaida members, conversed with members of the Taliban during speaking engagements overseas and reported on 17 groups named on a list prepared by the State Department of known terrorist organizations. He testified that the law has led him to consider altering speeches where members of al-Qaida or the Taliban might be present.

Hedges called Forrest's ruling "a tremendous step forward for the restoration of due process and the rule of law."

He said: "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 was among seven individuals and one organization that challenged the law with a January lawsuit. The National Defense Authorization Act was signed into law in December, allowing for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism. Wednesday's ruling does not affect another part of the law that enables the United States to indefinitely detain members of terrorist organizations, and the judge said the government has other legal authority it can use to detain those who support terrorists.

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Glenn Greenwald writes:

An Obama-Appointed Judge Rules Its Indefinite Detention Provisions Likely Violate the 1st and 5th Amendments

The ruling was a sweeping victory for the plaintiffs, as it rejected each of the Obama DOJ’s three arguments: (1) because none of the plaintiffs has yet been indefinitely detained, they lack “standing” to challenge the statute; (2) even if they have standing, the lack of imminent enforcement against them renders injunctive relief unnecessary; and (3) the NDAA creates no new detention powers beyond what the 2001 AUMF already provides.

The ruling was a sweeping victory for the plaintiffs, as it rejected each of the Obama DOJ’s three argumentsAs for the DOJ’s first argument — lack of standing — the court found that the plaintiffs are already suffering substantial injury from the reasonable fear that they could be indefinitely detained under section 1021 of the NDAA as a result of their constitutionally protected activities. As the court explained:

In support of their motion, Plaintiffs assert that § 1021 already has impacted their associational and expressive activities–and would continue to impact them, and that § 1021 is vague to such an  extent that it provokes fear that certain of their associational and expressive activities could subject them to indefinite or prolonged military detention.

The court found that the plaintiffs have “shown an actual fear that their expressive and associational activities” could subject them to indefinite detention under the law,and “each of them has put forward uncontroverted evidence of concrete — non-hypothetical — ways in which the presence of the legislation has already impacted those expressive and associational activities” (as but one example, Hedges presented evidence that his “prior journalistic activities relating to certain organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban” proves “he has a realistic fear that those activities will subject him to detention under § 1021″). Thus, concluded the court, these plaintiffs have the right to challenge the constitutionality of the statute notwithstanding the fact that they have not yet been detained under it; that’s because its broad, menacing detention powers are already harming them and the exercise of their constitutional rights.

Significantly, the court here repeatedly told the DOJ that it could preclude standing for the plaintiffs if they were willing to state clearly that none of the journalistic and free speech conduct that the plaintiffs engage in could subject them to indefinite detention. But the Government refused to make any such representation. Thus, concluded the court, “plaintiffs have stated a more than plausible claim that the statute inappropriately encroaches on their rights under the First Amendment.”

Independently, the court found that plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the NDAA violates their Fifth Amendment due process rights because the statute is so vague that it is virtually impossible to know what conduct could subject one to indefinite detention. Specifically, the court focused on the NDAA’s authorization to indefinitely detain not only Al Qaeda members, but also members of so-called “associated forces” and/or anyone who “substantially supports” such forces, and noted:

Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on their vagueness challenge. The terms upon which they focused at the hearing relate to who is a “covered person.” In that regard, plaintiffs took issue with the lack of definition and clarity regarding who constitutes an “associated forces,” and what it means to “substantially” or “directly” “support” such forces or, al-Qaeda or the Taliban. . . .

The Government was unable to define precisely what ”direct” or “substantial” “support” means. . . .Thus, an individual could run the risk of substantially supporting or directly supporting an associated force without even being aware that he or she was doing so.

Perhaps most importantly, the court categorically rejected the central defense of this odious bill from the Obama administration and its defenders: namely, that it did nothing more than the 2001 AUMF already did and thus did not really expand the Government’s power of indefinite detention. The court cited three reasons why the NDAA clearly expands the Government’s detention power over the 2001 AUMF (all of which I previously cited when denouncing this bill).

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