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Lawyers tested in court over anti-terrorism act

By Grant McCool

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lawyers for the Obama administration were put to the test by a U.S. judge on Thursday to explain why civilian activists and journalists should not fear being detained under a new anti-terrorism law.

Activists and journalists are suing the government to try to stop implementation of the law's provisions of indefinite detention for those deemed to have "substantially supported" al Qaeda and the Taliban and "associated forces."

Government lawyers argued in federal court in New York that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the National Defense Authorization Act's "Homeland Battlefield" provisions signed into law by President Barack Obama in December.

During day-long oral arguments, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest heard lawyers for former New York Times war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges and others argue that the law would have a "chilling effect" on their work.

While the judge said she was skeptical that the plaintiffs would win a constitutional challenge to the act, she also said she wanted to "understand the meaning to the ordinary citizen."

"I can't take the statute and strike it down for what it says, but can Hedges and others be detained for contacting al Qaeda or the Taliban as reporters?" she said.

Hedges told the court that "I don't think we know what 'associated forces' are. That's why I'm here."

The lawsuit, filed in January, cited Obama's statement of his "serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists" when he signed the act.

Forrest asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Torrance if "associated forces" could be interpreted in different ways.

Torrance said the plaintiffs were "taking phrases out of context" and that the law specifically applied to those found to have ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"What does substantially supported mean? How much is enough? When are someone's activities substantial or insubstantial?" the judge asked.

Torrance told her he did not have a specific example and said "it is not proper for plaintiffs to come in and say they are chilled and what not." He emphasized that the activity would "have to take place in the context of armed conflict."

The judge did not immediately rule on the motion.

(Reporting By Grant McCool; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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