WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of House lawmakers is challenging a new law that allows the indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens seized within the United States.
The unusual coalition of Democrats, libertarians and tea partyers on Wednesday unveiled an amendment to the 2013 defense budget that would end the indefinite detention. The House was scheduled to begin debate on the overall defense spending blueprint late Wednesday and probably will consider the amendment Thursday.
“The president does not need this authority to keep us safe,” Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters.
Separately on Wednesday, Bloomberg News reported that a federal judge in Manhattan temporarily blocked enforcement of a section of the National Defense Authorization Act that opponents claim allows for indefinite military detention.
U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest ruled in favor of a group of writers and activists who sued officials including President Barack Obama, claiming the act, signed into law Dec. 31, puts them in fear that they could be arrested and held by U.S. armed forces.
The case is Hedges v. Obama, 12-CV-00331,
The far-reaching defense bill Congress passed last year includes a provision denying suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation’s borders, 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. To ease some concerns, lawmakers added language that said nothing in the law may be “construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.”
In the months since, however, members of Congress have faced a backlash over the detention language.
The amendment would bar indefinite detention without charge or trial and roll back the military custody requirement. The group has the backing of 40 retired generals and admirals who wrote in a letter that “sound national security policy depends on faithful adherence to the rule of law.”
Joining Smith at a Capitol Hill news conference was freshman Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a GOP presidential candidate, and Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif.
“I do not believe a republic can exist if you permit a military to arrest American citizens and put them in secret prisons and deny a trial,” Paul said.
Smith said the amendment had a “reasonable chance of passage.”
Proponents of the detention provision argue that it is a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism.
In a letter to House colleagues, Reps. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, head of the Judiciary Committee, urged members to oppose the amendment and defended the law.
“No one could possibly favor the unlawful detention of American citizens, least of all the Armed Services and Judiciary committees,” the two wrote. They argued that the law does not sanction the unlawful detention of American citizens and the goal of the defense bill is to “reinforce the protection of American citizens from terrorist attacks.”
Restrictions on transfer
Since President Barack Obama took office, congressional Republicans and some Democrats have consistently crafted defense bills that restricted transfer of terrorist suspects from the U.S. naval prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the United States and imposed other limits on the handling of detainees.
The White House has threatened a veto of the Armed Services Committee’s defense bill, arguing that the $642 billion measure adds billions of dollars to Obama’s request and limits the military’s ability to execute a new defense strategy.
The White House Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday listed several objections to the spending blueprint, from the overall amount to provisions on gays in the military, nuclear weapons and limits on the use of biofuels.
The bill’s total is $8 billion more than what Obama and congressional Republicans agreed to last summer in a deficit-cutting deal. The bill outlines a base defense budget of $554 billion, including nuclear weapons spending, plus $88 billion for the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism efforts. Obama had proposed $551 billion, plus $88 billion.
Republicans added several provisions limiting the president’s ability to retire aircraft, ships and a version of the Global Hawk drone. The legislation would restrict the commander in chief’s ability to implement a new treaty with Russia to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The legislation also calls for construction of a new missile defense site on the East Coast even though Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the current array of defense sites is sufficient.
The bill, the administration said, impedes “the ability of the secretary of defense and the secretary of energy to make and implement management decisions that eliminate unnecessary overhead or programs to ensure scarce resources are directed to the highest priorities for the national security.”
The administration said if the cumulative effects of the legislation restrict efforts to carry out the new defense strategy, the president’s senior advisers would recommend a veto.