The strange case of Joe Lieberman just gets curiouser and curiouser. Had things gone slightly different in Florida eight years ago, the current “Independent” senator from Connecticut might be wrapping up the Democratic presidential nomination as Al Gore’s anointed successor. In such a bizarro world, Lieberman might be preparing for a general-election campaign against Republican nominee John McCain; instead, as events have transpired in the “reality-based” world, he has transformed into a former Democrat whose Droopy Dog mug is perpetually seen in McCain’s shadow at rallies, and who lovingly corrects McCain’s Sunni-Shi’a senior moments during Iraqi photo ops.

Joe LiebermanLieberman seems to have had the same reaction to 9/11 as, say, Dennis Miller – and each man has completely lost his bearings as a result. (Neither is very funny these days, either.) Most recently, Lieberman has become front man for the latest assault on Internet free speech, in his guise as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (Why Democrats are allowing him to chair anything more significant than a Passover seder at this point is beyond me.) Among other things, he has written a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt demanding that YouTube – which, in case you’ve forgotten, is now part of the Google empire – remove dozens of videos that “disseminate [terrorist] propaganda, enlist followers, and provide weapons training.”

Lieberman’s panel has released a staff report entitled “Violent Islamist Extremism, the Internet, and the Homegrown Terrorist Threat,” which documents the ways in which Al Qaeda and other groups use the Web to attract new members and disseminate information. It’s part of the push to enact a bill called the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” which already passed the House overwhelmingly. The act would create a new National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, which would have broad powers to propose new laws curbing the “radicalization” of U.S. citizens by foreign groups, and to investigate Americans suspected of involvement in subversive activities overseas or at home.

It would be, at heart, an “Un-American Activities Committee” for the 21st century – and Lieberman’s first salvo in this effort is aimed at the world’s largest distributor of user-generated online video. What makes YouTube/Google appealing to Lieberman, of course, is its stature as the biggest fish in a very big sea – one that is responsible to corporate shareholders who might place concerns over their stock values above the (almost) anything-goes ethos of YouTube and the Internet in general.

The KissIndeed, Google has responded in good-corporate-citizen fashion by pulling about 80 videos off YouTube that, it says, featured hate speech and/or excessive violence (in the form of beheadings, rocket attacks and such). However, Lieberman isn’t satiated; he wants more videos removed, and has taken his case public. “No matter what their content, videos produced by terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, that are committed to attacking America and killing Americans, should not be tolerated,” he said in a press statement. “Google must reconsider its policy.”

The key phrase there is “no matter what their content.” In other words, Lieberman not only wants YouTube to remove every single Islamic-extremist video that’s currently on the site, but also is pressuring the company to find some way of stopping such individuals or groups from uploading any kind of content in the future. Now, I’m not about to pretend that al Qaeda is going to shift from uploading footage of beheadings to, say, episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or anything else that Americans are likely to find even vaguely palatable. But a grainy video of a terrorist ranting against the Great Satan, or even building and setting an IED, does not put America’s security at risk. In fact, such footage, if noticed and examined closely by trained experts, may help us stop terrorist plots by offering clues to how, when or where they plan to strike next.

Nevertheless, in his obsession with “homeland security,” Lieberman has set the way-back machine to 1971 and the Nixon administration’s efforts to stop the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing the Pentagon Papers. Yes, the onetime Democratic nominee for Vice President is bringing prior restraint to the Internet. Who’d a thunk it?

The Supreme Court frowned on Nixon’s folly, and courts likely wouldn’t look too kindly on Lieberman’s lunacy either. Of course, Lieberman is couching his pressure in terms like “corporate responsibility” and is merely inviting Google to “reconsider its policy,” rather than engaging in overt threats. But with the promise of a new “national commission” on the way, the consequences of failing to comply with Lieberman’s “request” must be clear to a man like Schmidt, who might not want to be dragged before a panel on C-SPAN and asked why YouTube hates America.

As long as we’re picturing Schmidt sitting behind a bank of microphones at a long wooden table somewhere on Capitol Hill, let’s imagine who else might be subpoenaed to sit next to him. The publishers of every newspaper, TV-news website or major webzine that has posted an extremist video? The owners of every website-hosting ISP whose users might have uploaded jihadist rants? The goofballs behind Popdose?

The video linked above was on YouTube until last week, and is still available on Eyeblast and who-knows-how-many other sites around the world. And that, apart from the fact that prior restraint is unconstitutional, is precisely the problem. Lieberman & Co., even if they end up succeeding in forcing jihadist content off YouTube, haven’t a prayer of making the entire Internet – or even the American owned-and-operated slice of it – terrorist-free. A New York Times editorial the other day noted the futility of attempting to play whack-a-mole with terrorist websites: As soon as you shut down one of them, 10 more will sprout up in various corners of the Net. That’s the very nature of the beast, and no amount of U.S. government regulation or intimidation is going to change it.

Lieberman must know this; so why is he even trying? In particular, why is he demagoguing YouTube – a site created to provide the masses with a forum to express themselves freely online? It’s highly ironic, since Lieberman was one of many voices in the U.S. who condemned Google and Yahoo just two years ago for acceding to the Chinese government’s crackdown on web-based dissidents; lawsuits filed by some of those protesters against the two services are now making their way through the courts. So, again, why the hypocrisy – demanding the Internet remain free from China’s security obsessions, while demanding that it acquiesce to yours? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

He’s grandstanding, of course. There are cheap political points to be scored by going after the world’s largest Internet-based corporation on national security grounds, and Lieberman is one of Capitol Hill’s top scorers. (Let’s not forget that he wouldn’t have come anywhere near the vice presidency had he not become the first major Democrat to self-righteously attack Bill Clinton over Monica Lewinsky.) Still, at this moment in time it’s impossible to tell which team he’s trying to score points for: the Democrats who control Congress, and who gave him (for now) his committee chairmanship, or John McCain, to whose shriveled keister Lieberman’s lips now seem permanently attached.

Either way, he’s embarked on a fool’s errand. Speaking for myself, if “terrorists and other extremists” are going to be using the Internet as a recruiting, propaganda and training tool, I’d rather they do it out in the open – on, say, YouTube – where we can see them and track them and maybe, you know, stop them. Lieberman, while paying lip service to national security and scaring the bejeezus out of the usual gullibles by warning that “the Internet is going to kill your children,” is likely to succeed only in forcing the terrorists to communicate exclusively via a network of underground, hard-to-trace websites. In other words, in the name of protecting the “homeland,” he is probably just going to hamstring our intelligence efforts and leave us more vulnerable to attack.

Well, that cinches it. Joe Lieberman is a Republican!