Leading figures on the right and the left joined forces Thursday to condemn President Barack Obama for going back on his pledge not to veto a security bill that would allow for the indefinite detention of American terror suspects without trial.
Anyone who the administration believes is “part of or substantially supported al-Qaida, the Taliban or associated forces,” could face lifetime detention at Guantanamo Bay, without appeal or even a lawyer under the provision.
The House passed the bill on Wednesday, 283-136, and the Senate followed suit, 86-13, Thursday afternoon.
Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky led the attack on the new law.
“Detaining citizens without trial is not American,” he said, adding that passage of the law would signify that the terrorists have won.
“We’re talking about American citizens who can be taken from the United States and sent to a camp at Guantanamo Bay and held indefinitely,” Paul added. “It puts every American at risk.
“What security does this indefinite detention of Americans give us?” Paul asked. “The first and flawed premise, both here and in the badly named Patriot Act, is that our pre-9/11 police powers were insufficient to stop terrorism. This is simply not borne out by the facts.”
Paul pointed out that current policy says that someone may be a terrorist if they are missing fingers, if they have more than seven days of food stockpiled or if they have weatherproof storage for guns or ammunition.
“If you are suspected because of these activities, do you want the government to have the ability to send you to Guantanamo Bay for indefinite detention?”
California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein added: “Congress is essentially authorizing the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens without charge. We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge.”
Even FBI Director Robert Mueller opposed the provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, saying it could compromise terrorist investigations because it would make it more difficult to get suspects to cooperate.
“The possibility looms that we will lose opportunities to obtain cooperation from the persons in the past that we’ve been fairly successful in gaining,” Mueller told Congress.
The bill authorizes $662 billion in defense spending for 2012, and the White House says Obama has lifted his threat to veto it because of the detention provision. The president had previously said the new law would “cause confusion” in the intelligence community.
But a provision giving the president greater discretion to prevent suspects being handled by the military appeared to have changed Obama’s mind.
“We have concluded that the language does not challenge or constrain the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people, and the president’s senior advisers will not recommend a veto,” the White House said in a statement.
The bill would mandate military detention for foreign al-Qaida terrorists captured while plotting to attack the United States. It does not guarantee suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens, a trial and leaves open the possibility for indefinite detention.
Because the war on terror is not a formally declared war against another nation, the fear is that it could go on forever, leading to lifetime detentions without trial.
Human rights organizations opposed the provision, pointing out that current legislation has been successful in preventing a major terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 while allowing for successful prosecutions of more than 300 suspected terrorists, including shoe bomber Richard Reid, underwear bomber Umar Farouk and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
But the military justice system has completed only six cases among those held at Guantanamo, they added.
“By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in U.S. law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “In the past, Obama has lauded the importance of being on the right side of history. Today he is definitely on the wrong side.”
But majorities of both parties backed the provision. One of its main supporters, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said, “We are facing an enemy, not a common criminal organization, who will do anything and everything possible to destroy our way of life.
“When you join al-Qaida, you haven’t joined the Mafia,” Graham added. “You haven’t joined a gang. You’ve joined people who are bent on our destruction and who are a military threat.”
Graham was joined by Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, who said: “The language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their constitutional rights."
The Democratic chairman of the committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said: “Those who say that we have written into law a new authority to detain American citizens until the end of hostilities are wrong.
“I believe that if an American citizen joins a foreign army or a hostile force like al-Qaida that has declared war and organized a war against us and attacks us, that that person can be captured and detained as an enemy combatant under the law of war.”
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