The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would let the US government revoke or deny passports to Americans with connections to “foreign terrorist organizations.”
The measure, which passed by a voice vote Tuesday after a 15-minute debate, aims to prevent “lone wolves” trained in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East from entering or moving in the United States. The bill’s passage comes in the wake of a deadly shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., by a gunman who some officials say may have been linked to the Mideast-based terror group Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“The Benedict Arnold traitors who have turned against America and joined the ranks of the terrorist army ISIS should lose all rights afforded to our citizens,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement last year. “These people are not returning to America to open coffee shops, they are coming back to kill. We must stop them from coming back at all.”
The Islamic State has been known to use Internet propaganda to appeal to young people’s sense of isolation and religious obligation to recruit them into its ranks.
In September, the CIA estimated that about 2,000 Westerners from more than 80 countries had gone to Syria to join the extremist group. That number jumped in February to about 3,400, of which about 180 are Americans, director of national intelligence James Clapper said.
The new bill, titled the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) Passport Revocation Act, authorizes the US Secretary of State to revoke the passport, but not the nationality, of any American deemed to have “aided, assisted, abetted, or otherwise helped” any overseas terrorist group.
US law currently allows passports to be revoked for national security or foreign policy reasons, but Americans whose passports are revoked can appeal through administrative channels. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has argued – like other conservatives before him – that a more explicit measure is necessary.
Australia and Canada have passed similar measures, although the Australian government has so far limited its laws to apply only to dual-nationality citizens. In February, France confiscated the passports of six suspected jihadists who were believed to have been planning to travel to Syria.
Critics have voiced concerns over the broad powers such laws grant governments. They also point to technologies that allow government agencies to keep track of citizens and suspend their travel privileges without confiscating passports.
“Given that this technology exists, there is no need for the US government to add powers that could end up stripping passports from citizens unnecessarily,” Patrick Weil wrote for Reuters. “To do otherwise would be to ignore serious constitutional problems” – in particular, taking away a US citizen’s only internationally recognized proof of identity.
“Available technology allows the government to deny or forbid the possibility of dangerous persons crossing borders while easily enforcing the basic right – for us all – to bear a form of internationally recognized identification when abroad,” Mr. Weil continued. “There is no excuse for the government not to use it.”
Senate approval is required for the new bill to become law.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.