POLITICS

GOP Congressman Suggests Looser Standard Of Proof For Investigating Muslims

Rep. Lee Zeldin says there needs to be "some type of process" to protect Americans, even if there isn't sufficient evidence.

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), fresh off telling CNN that "you can easily argue" that President Barack Obama is a racist, went on Fox News on Sunday to suggest there should be an easier standard for investigating Muslims.

"If we have someone in this country who is Islamic, and we have evidence, whether we pick the standard of 'reasonable suspicion' or 'probable cause,' that they are a suspected terrorist," Zeldin said, "there needs to be some type of a process put in place, where maybe you can't convict them of a crime yet because they haven't committed it yet, but we are able to take action to protect Americans."

Zeldin was "referring to cases where there is evidence that a jihadist has the intention of carrying out a terrorist attack against Americans," spokeswoman Jennifer DiSiena told The Huffington Post.

Obviously, there are already laws in place to arrest people when there's evidence that they plan to execute a terrorist attack.

But DiSiena noted that "the FBI, Department of Justice and other law enforcement officials need additional tools to prevent a suspected terrorist from acquiring a firearm." She argued that "there needs to be a discussion of whether that standard should be reasonable suspicion or a higher standard of probable cause."

Regardless, DiSiena said, a suspected terrorist shouldn't have access to a firearm. Zeldin, she said, was just suggesting a "short term halt" on access to firearms or explosives for Muslims -- "jihadists," in his office's words -- who are on a terrorist watch list.

There's currently a bill from Zeldin's fellow Long Island Republican, Rep. Peter King, that would prevent people on the terrorist watch list from getting guns, and Democrats have used procedural tricks to try to force a vote on that legislation. (Zeldin, along with every other House Republican, voted against allowing a vote.)

On Monday night, Zeldin told HuffPost that he was indeed referring to restricting access to guns only for people on a terrorist watch list.

"How 'bout we start off with you reading what I said?" the congressman added.

But at no point in the Fox News segment did Zeldin ever mention guns, and the question he was asked was what he thought the United States could change to prevent incidents like the Orlando shooting. What he suggested was "some type of process" by which the government could "take action" to protect Americans from people who can't be charged with a crime.

When HuffPost pressed Zeldin on the fact that the issue of guns never came up in the Fox News segment, Zeldin said that guns were "the only thing" he's been talking about with regard to new restrictions. "So what else could it be other than what I've been talking about?" he asked.

When HuffPost said that was indeed the question, Zeldin, who had already walked away from the interview once, walked away for a final time.

Listen to the interview below:

Certainly, Zeldin's remarks on Sunday seemed to suggest more than just a plan to stop suspected terrorists from getting guns.

When Fox News host Eric Shawn invited the congressman to clarify his comments -- "I assume that when you talk about 'Muslim,' you are referring to those who would have evidence of terrorist ties, not the general population," Shawn said -- Zeldin can be heard saying, as the host goes to commercial break, "And that's why I mention the 'reasonable suspicion' and 'probable cause.'"

Reasonable suspicion is a legal standard for criminal investigations that is less rigorous than probable cause. It generally applies in the context of things like stop-and-frisk laws. It's never been used to detain or deport an individual.

It isn't clear what, in Zeldin's mind, would constitute reasonable suspicion to take some action. It's not even clear what Zeldin is truly proposing here. Again, the latter explanations from his office and himself seem out of sync with what Zeldin was saying on Fox News. He never mentioned firearm purchases in his original comments, leaving open the possibility that he meant something much more than that. 

Either way, however, Zeldin is proposing a new standard for dealing with Muslims who are on a terrorist watch list. And while that may seem practical at some level, terrorist watch lists are famously expansive. For example, as of December 2013, one terrorist watch list included 1.1 million people (though many of those names are spelling variations, and the government has said that only about 25,000 people on that list are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents). 

The government says it currently uses "reasonable suspicion" as the threshold for inclusion on terrorist watch lists, which in practice seems to be a pretty low bar. Stephen Hayes, a writer at The Weekly Standard, ended up on a terrorist watch list in 2014 after buying a one-way ticket to Turkey.

Zeldin's comments this week raise a number of questions. Obviously, it would be good to know what he meant when he referred to "some type of process." Would these suspected terrorists ever get a trial? Why does religious profiling need to be an aspect of his plan? Are suspected terrorists who are not Muslim somehow less of a threat?

In an ordinary year, even in the wake of a horrific mass shooting like the one in Orlando, Florida, this weekend, Zeldin's proposal would likely be a rhetorical point without any real policy traction.

But with presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump making a renewed call for his Muslim ban after the attack on a gay nightclub by someone who was once on a terrorist watch list, there's genuinely no way to predict what might happen as a result of a congressman apparently saying we need to hold Muslims to a different standard of justice.

This story has been updated to reflect an interview between Zeldin and HuffPost on Monday night.

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