You got it wrong, Congressman

by Steven R. Corman

About a month ago, I wrote a post critical of a vote in the House of Representatives on an amendment offered by Rep. Hoekstra to H.R. 5959 to deny DHS and NCTC the ability to expend any funds in their efforts to discourage use of words like “jihad” in U.S. strategic communication.

Since my own Congressman, Harry Mitchell of Arizona’s 5th District, voted in favor of the amendment, I wrote him to register my displeasure with his vote.  The other day I received the following reply:

Dear Dr. Corman:

Thank you for contacting me in opposition to H.Amdt. 1114, an amendment to H.R. 5959, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009. I appreciate hearing from you on this issue.

I agree that we should seek to avoid empowering terrorists and others who mean to do our country harm.

As you know, H.Amdt. 1114, would amend the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009, H.R. 5959, to require that none of the funds authorized to be appropriated by that bill may be used to prohibit or discourage the use of the words or phrases “jihadist”, “jihad”, “Islamo-fascism”, “caliphate”, “Islamist”, or “Islamic terrorist” by or within the intelligence community or the Federal Government.

I believe that U.S. citizens conducting intelligence work should enjoy the same freedom of speech in communicating with each other as their fellow citizens enjoy in communicating with their professional colleagues, provided such communication does not pose a risk to our national security.

The House agreed to this amendment by a bipartisan vote of 249 to 180.

Again, thank you for taking the time to write to me about this issue.  Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if you have additional comments or concerns.

If you would like to receive email updates about how I am working on behalf of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, I invite you to sign up for my newsletter at http://www.mitchell.house.gov.

Sincerely,

Harry E. Mitchell

Member of Congress

I debated whether to post that response and this comment on it because I generally support Congressman Mitchell, and I don’t relish criticizing him.  What convinced me to go ahead was the justification given for the vote, which just doesn’t make any sense and shouldn’t be allowed to pass unchallenged.

The Congressman begins by saying that government employees should be able to use the stated words as long as “such communication does not pose a risk to our national security.”  In my original message to him, I explained how using these words supports al-Qaeda’s communication strategy.  That poses a risk to our national security.

Since he doesn’t seem to believe me, perhaps he will believe Richard Barnett, Coordinator of the al-Qaida/Taliban Monitoring Team of the United Nations Security Council.  He just published an important report called Seven Years After 9/11: Al-Qaeda’s Strengths and Vulnerabilities.

Barnett says al-Qaeda is weakened but still dangerous because it continues to provide a rallying point for disaffected people around the world.  It does this because it positions itself as a heroic defender of Islam, i.e. a jihadist entity. He concludes the report with a section on how we should address their continuing appeal:

Its opponents should therefore avoid intentionally or unintentionally saying or doing anything that appears to support its claims, from the use of terms to describe Al-Qaida to the introduction of policies that would appear to confirm its argument that the Muslim world is under attack. [my emphasis]

Next, the Congressman casts this as a freedom of speech issue.  But Supreme Court rulings limit the scope of government employees’ rights, saying that their interests in free expression

must not be outweighed by any injury that the speech could cause to the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.

Basically, the amendment makes it impossible for the government to have a communication strategy with respect to the labeling of Islamic extremists, so it unequivocally impairs the efficiency of public services performed through affected employees.  Free speech is simply not a salient issue here.

Finally, I disagree with the assertion that this was a bipartisan vote.  I’m not sure how one can make such a claim when 98% of Republicans voted for it and 76% of Democrats voted against it.

Every element of the above justification for this vote is faulty.  The amendment supports continued use of words that help al-Qaeda frame itself as a defender of the faith, helping to empower it and causing a risk to our national security.  There is no legitimate free speech right that outweighs these harms.  There was no bipartisan consensus to the contrary.  You got it wrong, Congressman.