House Showdown Looms Over Indefinite Detention
WASHINGTON -- A showdown looms in the U.S. House of Representatives over whether to end the indefinite detention without trial of terrorist suspects, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders.
An unlikely coalition of Democrats and tea party Republicans lobbied their colleagues furiously ahead of Friday's vote, arguing that indefinite detention gives the executive branch extraordinary power that violates Americans' constitutional rights. Opponents insisted that any change in the law would weaken national security and coddle terrorists.
The divisive issue was playing out as the Republican-controlled House considered a $642 billion defense budget for next year. Final passage of the legislation was expected Friday afternoon.
The provision in the current defense law denies suspected terrorists the right to trial and subjects them to the possibility they would be held indefinitely. It reaffirms the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants.
Conservatives fear that could result in unfettered power for the federal government, allowing it to detain American citizens indefinitely for even a one-time contribution to a humanitarian group that's later linked to terrorism. They argue that would be a violation of long-held constitutional rights. Also disconcerting to the Republican Party is the reality that the current government is led by Democratic President Barack Obama.
Several Democrats also have criticized the provision as an example of government overreach and an unnecessary obstacle to the administration's war against terrorism.
When Obama signed the bill on Dec. 31, he issued a statement saying he had serious reservations about provisions on the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Such signing statements are common and allow presidents to raise constitutional objections to circumvent Congress' intent.
"My administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens," Obama said in the signing statement. "Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation."
In February, the Obama administration outlined new rules on when the FBI -- rather than the military -- could be allowed to retain custody of al-Qaida terrorism suspects who aren't U.S. citizens but are arrested by federal law enforcement officers. The new procedures spelled out seven circumstances in which the president could place a suspect in FBI custody, including a waiver when it could impede counterterrorism cooperation with another government or when it could interfere with efforts to secure an individual's cooperation or confession.
But that's not sufficient for some lawmakers. A Republican and a Democrat have offered an amendment that would bar indefinite detention without charge or trial of suspected terrorists and roll back the military custody requirement.
"The president right now has the authority to go outside and lock somebody up indefinitely," Democratic congressman Adam Smith said.
Opponents of the amendment have countered with a measure that reaffirms Americans' constitutional rights.
The spending blueprint calls for money for aircraft, ships, weapons, the war in Afghanistan and a 1.7 percent pay raise for military personnel, billions of dollars more than Obama proposed. House Republicans abandoned last summer's deficit-cutting plan that was worked out with Obama, embracing a budget that adds $8 billion for the military while slashing funds for some safety-net programs for the poor such as Medicaid and food stamps.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, citing a long list of objections.