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Lis Wiehl











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In a war of words, what’s the next best thing to insulting someone’s mother? Accusing that person of treason, of course!

President Bush stopped just short of that recently when the New York Times and others reported that the U.S. government had been monitoring the financial dealings of terrorists. The President said the Times revelation “does great harm to the United States” and “makes it harder to win the war on terror.”

And the president’s allies started dropping the “T-bomb” almost immediately. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) decried, “We’re at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.”

U.S. Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY), who once accused reporter Peter Arnett of treason for suggesting that American war planners had “misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces,” declared, “In my opinion, that is giving aid and comfort to the enemy, therefore it is an act of treason."

Conservative talk-show host Melanie Morgan went even further, adding, “I would have no problem with [New York Times editor Bill Keller] being sent to the gas chamber." Never mind that President Bush himself announced on Sept. 24, 2001 that “we're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice — we will work with their governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists' ability to access funds in foreign accounts.”

Accusations of treason, like cracks directed at people’s mothers, can be insanely effective.

“The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason,” wrote Ann Coulter in her 2003 best seller, entitled (what else?) Treason. And, during an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” actor Ben Affleck stated that if President Bush participated in the outing of Plame, “That’s treason…they shoot you on the battlefield for that.” On a lighter note (at least in America), Australian singer Kylie Minogue was recently accused of “World Cup Treason” for throwing her support behind the home nation of Minogues’ French actor boyfriend Olivier Martinez.

Article Three of the U.S. Constitution defines treason as levying war against the United States or "in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort," and requires the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or a confession in open court for conviction. Depending on the circumstances, treason is punishable by death or imprisonment of not less than five years and a fine of no less than $10,000. A treason conviction also precludes one from ever holding public office.

In the history of the United States there have been fewer than 40 federal prosecutions for treason and even fewer convictions. This is due, in large part, to the fact that the framers of the Constitution deliberately created a narrow definition of treason in order to avoid politically motivated accusations of it from their enemies. After all, as John Hughes, a political science professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont pointed out, “Each of them had committed treason just 12 years before.”

As a result, meeting the tough constitutional standard can be a formidable undertaking. For example, in 1807, no one doubted that Aaron Burr sought to make himself emperor of a new nation in the west, forged from conquered provinces of Mexico and territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. But as Chief Justice John Marshall pointed out in acquitting Burr, planning war is not the same as levying war.

John Walker Lindh, the "American Taliban" fighter, might seem like a textbook case of treason. Nevertheless, on the advice of then Attorney General John Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, President Bush opted to pursue conspiracy charges instead, because the threshold of proof for treason was simply too high.

Even when convictions are won, the victories can come back to bite. Obtaining a conviction of “Tokyo Rose” in 1949 for allegedly participating in Japanese propaganda activities during World War II was simple enough. But when it was eventually revealed that she had remained loyal to the U.S. and covertly given aid to American P.O.W.’s, President Ford pardoned her — which brings us back to the New York Times.

The New York Times and others were not “levying war” against the United States when they reported on the government’s bank monitoring program. And any “aid and comfort” provided to terrorists by conveying such readily available information would seem minuscule, at best. As Tom Brokaw said, “I don’t know anyone who believes that the terrorist network said, ‘Oh my God, they’re watching our financial transactions? What a surprise.’ Of course they knew that we were doing that.”

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Sources:

• New York Times and others reported that the U.S. government had been monitoring the financial dealings of terrorists…

BANK DATA SIFTED IN SECRET BY U.S. TO BLOCK TERROR
June 23, 2006, Friday
By ERIC LICHTBLAU AND JAMES RISEN; BARCLAY WALSH CONTRIBUTED REPORTING FOR THIS ARTICLE. (NYT); Foreign Desk
Late Edition - Final, Section A, Page 1, Column 6, 3557 words

• The Times revelation “does great harm to the United States” Bush declared, and “makes it harder to win the war on terror.”

• Rep. Peter King (R-NY) decried, “We’re at war, and for the Times to release information about secret operations and methods is treasonous.”

• U.S. Senator Jim Bunning — Arnett Treason

Bunning quote

Melanie Morgan quote

• Bush himself announced on Sept. 24, 2001 that “We're putting banks and financial institutions around the world on notice—we will work with their governments, ask them to freeze or block terrorists' ability to access funds in foreign accounts.”

Coulter quote

Coulter book — Treason copyright 2003

Coulter book — Treason bestseller

Alan Franken quote

Affleck quote

• Kylie Minogue — World Cup Treason

Legal definition of Treason — 40 prosecutions

• Framers of the Constitution deliberately created a narrow definition of treason in order to avoid politically motivated accusations of it from their enemies. After all, as John Hughes, a political science professor at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont pointed out, “Each of them had committed treason just 12 years before.”

Aaron Burr — Mexico, etc.

Aaron Burr — John Marshall acquittal

Lindh — not tried for treason, threshold too high

Lindh — conspiracy

“Tokyo Rose” — simple to prosecute

Tokyo Rose — propaganda

• Brokaw quote — Frank Rich, NY Times, July 2, 2006 — Can’t Win the War? Bomb the Press!

Pentagon Papers


Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.