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Terror Financing, Guilt by Association and the Paradigm of Prevention in the 'War on Terror'


David Cole


Georgetown University Law Center

October 25, 2010

COUNTERTERRORISM: DEMOCRACY'S CHALLENGE, Bianchi & Keller, eds., Hart Publishing, 2008
Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1262792

Abstract:     
"Material support" has become the watchword of the post-9/11 era. Material support to groups that have been designated as "terrorist" has been the U.S. government's favorite charge in post-9/11 "terrorism" prosecutions. Under immigration law, material support is a basis for deportation and exclusion - even where individuals have been coerced into providing support by the terrorist group itself. And under the Military Commissions Act, it is now a "war crime."

This essay argues that the criminalization of "material support" to designated "terrorist organizations" is guilt by association in twenty-first-century garb, and presents all of the same problems that criminalizing membership and association with the Communist Party did during the Cold War. I first outline the ways in which guilt by association has been revived through the concept of penalizing "material support" for organizations labeled terrorist. I then discuss the constitutional questions that these laws present, and sketch how the courts have thus far resolved those questions. In short, the courts have sought to trim the worst excesses of the laws, but have been largely unwilling to confront head on their fundamental infirmity - the imposition of guilt by association without any proof of intent to further any terrorist acts.

The essay concludes by explaining how the material support laws fit into the United States' broader "paradigm of prevention" in confronting the threat of terrorism. That term, coined by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, describes an amalgam of tactics in which the government employs highly coercive and intrusive measures against groups and individuals based not on proof of past wrongdoing, but on necessarily speculative fears about what they might do in the future. The material support laws further this goal by expanding the definition of what constitutes a past crime, just as the Smith Act membership provision of the Cold War era did. These laws are not purely preventive, in that they do require proof of some past "wrongdoing." But their expansive definitions of wrongdoing stretch that concept beyond its limits in the name of preventing future harm.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 19

Keywords: terrorism, material support, smith act, constitutional law

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Date posted: September 3, 2008 ; Last revised: October 25, 2010

Suggested Citation

Cole, David, Terror Financing, Guilt by Association and the Paradigm of Prevention in the 'War on Terror' (October 25, 2010). COUNTERTERRORISM: DEMOCRACY'S CHALLENGE, Bianchi & Keller, eds., Hart Publishing, 2008; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1262792. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1262792

Contact Information

David D. Cole (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9078 (Phone)
202-662-9408 (Fax)
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