The Supreme Court on Monday upheld one of the government’s most frequently used tools in the battle against terrorism.
In a 6-3 decision, the court rejected a constitutional challenge to a law banning “material support” to terrorist organizations, a charge that has frequently been leveled since the Sept.11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon against those in the U.S. who are in league with organizations such al Qaeda.
A group led by the nonprofit Humanitarian Law Project had argued that the law, which carries a 15-year prison term, was too vague and violated First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association.
Specifically, the organization wanted to help two groups, which the U.S. has deemed terrorists, navigate international law and politics with the goal of resolving disputes peacefully. The nonprofit project argued that the government must prove someone intends to further a terrorist organization’s illegal goals in order to be convicted of providing “material support.”
But the court ruled that such a distinction is impossible to make and that even well-intentioned aid to terrorist organizations is likely to backfire.
“Such support frees up other resources within the organization that may be put to violent ends,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “It also importantly helps lend legitimacy to foreign terrorist groups — legitimacy that makes it easier for those groups to persist, to recruit members and to raise funds — all of which facilitate more terrorist attacks.”
Chief Justice Roberts was joined by Justices Samuel Alito Jr., Anthony M. Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Steven Breyer, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, agreed with the majority that the law is not unconstitutionally vague, but said the majority went too far in rejecting the First Amendment argument.
“All the activities involve the communication and advocacy of political ideas and lawful means of achieving political ends,” Justice Breyer wrote. “It is far from obvious that these advocacy activities can themselves be redirected, or will free other resources that can be directed, towards terrorist ends.”
According to the Justice Department, about 150 people have been charged since 2001 with providing “material support” to terrorists and about half have been convicted. The department said several of those cases involved issues such as providing the type of training discussed in the case the high court decided Monday.
That case involved the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. The U.S. designated both groups as terrorist organizations in 1997.
The Humanitarian Law Project argued that the “material support” charge should not be brought against those who trained members of PKK to use “humanitarian and international law to peacefully resolve disputes,” engaged “in political advocacy on behalf of Kurds who live in Turkey,” and taught PKK members how to petition various representative bodies such as the United Nations for relief.”
The organization also argued that the groups should be allowed to engage in “political advocacy on behalf of Tamils who live in Sri Lanka.”
But the court said Congress was correct in passing a law to prevent those groups from receiving aid.
While LTTE was defeated by the Sri Lankan military last year, the group has a deadly history of carrying out extensive suicide bombings and political assassinations, including the 1993 killing of Sri Lankan President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
According to the U.S. government, PKK is responsible for more than 22,000 deaths since its campaign began in 1978.
“It is wholly foreseeable that the PKK could use the ‘specific skill[s]’ that plaintiffs propose to impart, as part of a broader strategy to promote terrorism,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “The PKK could, for example, pursue peaceful negotiation as a means of buying time to recover from short-term setbacks, lulling opponents into complacency, and ultimately preparing for renewed attacks.”