One of the battle cries of the far right is “treason!” The folks on the fringe tend to see their position as “pro-American,” and as a consequence some of the simpler-minded of them tend to equate anyone who opposes them as opposing America. The logical extension of that rather simplistic misguided confluence is that for an American to oppose America is committing treason.
I don’t like that for a variety of reasons.
For one, the United States Constitution spells out very specific requirements for the crime of treason. Here is Article III, Section 3 in its entirety:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
The Congress shall have Power to declare the Punishment of Treason, but no Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.
That is a very high standard, and a difficult one to meet. To toss around accusations of “treason” without being able to meet that high standard is careless at the least — and, to use the high rhetoric of its most frequent abusers, against the Constitution and therefore un-American and almost treasonous.
But in the last few weeks, three Americans, in totally unrelated cases, have each been in the news and in each case the term “treason” has been tossed around. (I have been one of the term-tossers, I must confess.) So I thought it might be worthwhile to look at each of the three of them and hold them up to that standard.
First is radical lawyer (well, now ex-lawyer, as she is a convicted felon) Lynne Stewart. Stewart represented Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who had been convicted of plotting to blow up several New York landmarks, including bridges and tunnels. As he was a leader of a radical Muslim terrorist group (there’s gotta be some redundancy in THAT phrase), the government imposed severe restrictions on his ability to communicate with the outside world. Stewart knowingly and willingly facilitated his circumvention of those restrictions, not only directly relaying his words to his followers, but bringing in a “translator” who directly spoke with Abdel-Rahman and discussed terrorist plans while Jennings feigned to be discussing legal matters.
Abdel-Rahman is a convicted terrorist who was working on plans to kill several thousand Americans and cripple our transportation system in and around New York City. A comparison between his plan and the 9/11 attacks is a fair one, so I think we can clearly establish him as an “enemy” of the United States. Stewart clearly provided aid to him, in contravention of the law, so I think “treason” would have been a fair charge.
The fact that she was sentenced to a mere 28 months — with the judge praising her for her years dedicated to defending accused radicals and domestic terrorists like black nationalists and the Weather Underground — is a slap in the face to the notion of justice. Stewart was an attorney — an officer of the court — and should be held to a far higher standard of conduct, as she should know better than most the letter of the law and the significance of obeying it.
The second person is Adam Gadahn, now going by “Azzam the American.” Gadahn hails from California, but in the 1990’s converted to Islam and traveled to Pakistan, where married an Afghan refugee. Since then, he has formally joined Al Qaeda and been the star of several of their videos.
Gadahn is a member of an organization that has not only repeatedly declared war against the United States, but has committed numerous acts of war against us. He has taken part in numerous official actions of theirs, yet has not formally renounced his American citizenship. (His appellation “Azzam the Americcan” is indicative that he still considers himself an American.) This is a clear-cut example of treason as spelled out by the Constitution, and his recent indictment for that very crime is appropriate.
Finally, Sandy “The Pants Burglar” Berger. Berger, for those of you who’d like a refresher, was President Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor during his entire second term. Since Berger had held that office right up until less than eight monhs prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, he was called to testify before the 9/11 Commission.
While preparing for his testimony, Berger (who still enjoyed high security clearance) was permitted to review many classified documents from his tenure in office at the National Archives — as did many others who wanted to refresh their memories. But during his many visits there, Berger stole several key documents — “accidentally” carrying them out in his briefcase and pockets — and later destroyed them. He was convicted of “mishandling classified documents” and let off with a slap on the wrist — a $50,000 fine and loss of his security clearance.
What Berger did was extremely serious. I, personally, believe that stealing and destroying classified documents relating to terrorism in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks could easily fall into the classification of espionage, and a charge of that would have been appropriate.
But does it fall into the category of treason? I think not. There was no direct benefit to our enemies in Berger’s actions, and the motivation was not to help them, but instead — at worst — Berger wanted to cover his own ass and that of his political patrons. As with Lynne Stewart, he should be held to a higher standard. Berger was a career bureaucrat and statesman, and had spent eight years as Deputy National Security Advisor and National Security Advisor. The proper handling of classified materials should have been second nature to him, as instinctive as breathing, and he failed — miserably — to do so.
But it was not treason.
For decades, people on both extremes — but mainly the Right — have tossed around the term “treason.” The John Birch Society made its biggest splash with its book about the Communist threat, “None Dare Call It Treason.” The phrase was coined by the 15th century British poet and aristocrat Sir John Harington (who also invented the modern flush toilet) in this couplet:
“Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
Treason is an important concept. It must be respected and preserved and reserved only for the proper occasions, like Stewart and Gadahn. To toss it around casually is to dilute it, to weaken it, and make it unusable for those times when it is truly called for.