Fractured Senate Democrats worked Thursday to find compromise over language for legislation which ultimately could allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without charge or trial. Their efforts, however, were limited at best, leaving the defense bill open to the very real threat of a rare presidential veto.
The overall National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) contains a provision which opponents say could allow the unlimited detention of U.S. citizens by the military, both at home and abroad.
President Obama has threatened to veto the bill over the issue of indefinite detention, which top members of his administration — including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — oppose.
Others, particularly Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have insisted on including the detention language in the bill. Levin is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The bill is an historic threat to American citizens and others because it expands and makes permanent the authority of the president to order the military to imprison without charge or trial American citizens,” says Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has worked to defeat the unlimited detention policy. “The final amendment to preserve current detention restrictions could turn out to be meaningless and Senators Levin and [Lindsay] Graham [R-S.C.] made clear that they believe this power to use the military against American citizens will not be affected by the new language. This bill puts military detention authority on steroids and makes it permanent. If it becomes law, American citizens and others are at real risk of being locked away by the military without charge or trial.”
After Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) tried unsuccessfully to pass an amendment to the NDAA to ban indefinite detention, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sought also to forge compromise.
The amendment negotiated between Feinstein and Levin that passed, however, does not prohibit the application of unlimited detention to American citizens or others in the United States, according to the ACLU.
Named to the conference committee which will hammer out differences between House and Senate versions of the NDAA, detention opponent Udall says he will continue to fight against the policy in conference.
“As a member of the conference committee, I will continue to fight for a consensus that will protect our national security and the constitutional principles on which our nation was founded,” says Udall, who ultimately voted in favor of the overall NDAA despite the inclusion of the detention policy.
The ACLU’s Anders doesn’t hold out much hope, though.
“Given that the House version of the legislation is already very troubling, the final House-Senate negotiated bill will likely be even worse. Unless Congress somehow comes to its senses, President Obama should get his veto pen ready,” he says.
Obama has used his veto just twice before in his presidency, and never for such a prominent piece of legislation as the annual defense authorization bill.
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.