America's New War?
November 8, 2001
WASHINGTON (AP) - Prosecutors seeking to hold people they suspect were in the early stages of terrorist plots may turn anew to a very old weapon - the Civil War-era law on sedition.
Last week, prosecutors cited the rarely invoked law in the case of a student being detained in New York, and hinted they might make fuller use of it in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
With roots in laws that date back more than 200 years, the statute gives the government great flexibility in assembling prosecutions against people who plan but don't carry out criminal acts against the United States.
Federal prosecutors ``appear to be right on the money'' in using the sedition law to address possible terrorist collaborators, George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg said.
``To the extent a jihad'' or holy war ``is invoked against the United States, it's like an announcement that `I'm putting myself under this statute,''' Saltzburg said.
The government suggested its approach in a perjury indictment last week. The federal grand jury that brought the case against an associate of two of the hijackers is investigating ``seditious conspiracy to levy war against the United States,'' the indictment stated.
Law enforcement officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors are examining other cases in which they might use the sedition law against people who did not carry out attacks but had been in various stages of planning.
The law imposes up to 20-year prison terms when two or more people ``conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the government of the United States, or to levy war against them.''
While the law is seldom invoked, prosecutors used it to win convictions in two high-profile cases against four Puerto Rican nationalists and against a Muslim cleric and co-defendants who plotted to blow up the United Nations (news - web sites).
In neither case were the violent acts carried out.
The U.S. law on sedition dates back to the 1790s when the Alien and Sedition acts of the John Adams administration targeted people who criticized the government. The acts expired and were not renewed amid a storm of criticism.
A new law passed during the Civil War served as the basis for the current statute.
There were Confederate sympathizers in the North and the law was passed to make it easier to punish people who conspired against the union, said University of Michigan law professor Richard Friedman.
The government used the sedition law after World War I to convict anarchists. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court upheld convictions of communists on sedition charges for teaching doctrines that were held to be subversive.
``These weren't people blowing things up; they were basically basement seminars where people would read Marx,'' said constitutional law professor Richard Primus of the University of Michigan.
``Teaching people that the government is bad in the abstract is a constitutional right, but once you go beyond to an agreement to commit crimes, that becomes clearly punishable,'' said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
Chicago attorney Jeremy Margolis successfully prosecuted four Puerto Rican nationalists for seditious conspiracy in the 1980s for planning to bomb a Marine training center and an Army Reserve facility.
The object of the conspiracy was to change the policies of the U.S. government ``as opposed to doing a particular criminal act - blow that up, take that down, shoot that person,'' Margolis recalled.
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