SCOTUS v. John Brennan

Let’s revisit for a moment John Brennan’s remarks at the Nixon Center in May. Brennan is assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. Here is the Reuters dispatch:

“Hezbollah is a very interesting organization,” Brennan told a Washington conference, citing its evolution from “purely a terrorist organization” to a militia to an organization that now has members within the parliament and the cabinet.

“There is certainly the elements of Hezbollah that are truly a concern to us what they’re doing. And what we need to do is to find ways to diminish their influence within the organization and to try to build up the more moderate elements,” Brennan said.

Let’s assume that Brennan is right that “moderate elements” exist within Hezbollah. Let’s also go further than Brennan and remind ourselves that Hezbollah is also a leading provider of social services in Lebanon. Hezbollah, reports Harpers:

offers an array of social services to its constituents that include construction companies, schools, hospitals, dispensaries, and micro-finance initiatives . . . . These tend to be located in predominantly Shiite areas, but some serve anyone requesting help. Hezbollah hospital and clinic staff also treat all walk-in patients, regardless of political views or their sect, for only a small fee.

Is it wise for the United States to encourage such benign activity, especially if it is carried out by a designated terrorist organization?

In Holder vs. The Humanitarian Law Project, decided yesterday, the Supreme Court has weighed in with some pertinent observations. Writing for the majority, Justice John Roberts notes that support for the “benign” side of terrorist organizations “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.”

Citing affidavits filed in the case, Roberts further notes:

Terrorist organizations do not maintain organizational ‘firewalls’ that would prevent or deter . . . sharing and commingling of support and benefits.

And that:

[I]nvestigators have revealed how terrorist groups systematically conceal their activities behind charitable, social, and political fronts.

And that:

some designated foreign terrorist organizations use social and political components to recruit personnel to carry out terrorist operations, and to provide support to criminal terrorists and their families in aid of such operations.

Certainly it would be wonderful if Hezbollah abandoned terrorism and evolved into a political party and social service agency. But encouragement of such a process by the American government can itself have costs, especially when there is no evidence that such an evolution is under way. The costs should be obvious to the man charged with advising the president on counterterrorism. Since it is clearly not obvious, it helps enormously to have the Supreme Court enumerate exactly what some of those costs are.

Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.

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