Yesterday the shameful dinosaurs of the Senate — hopelessly out of touch with reality, for the most part, and haunted by specters of their own making — approved, by 93 votes to 7, the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (PDF), which contains a number of astonishingly alarming provisions — Sections 1031 and 1032, designed to make mandatory the indefinite military detention of terror suspects until the end of hostilities in a “war on terror” that seems to have no end (if they are identified as a member of al-Qaeda or an alleged affiliate, or have planned or carried out an attack on the United States), ending a long and entirely appropriate tradition of trying terror suspects in federal court for their alleged crimes, and Sections 1033 and 1034, which seek to prevent the closure of Guantánamo by imposing onerous restrictions on the release of prisoners, and banning the use of funds to purchase an alternative prison anywhere else. I have previously remarked on these depressing developments in articles in July and October, as they have had a horribly long period of gestation, in which no one with a grip on reality — and admiration for the law — has been able to wipe them out.
The four sections are connected, as cheerleaders for the mandatory military detention of terror suspects want them to be sent to Guantánamo, and have done, if I recall correctly, at least since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas plane bomber in 2009, was arrested, read his Miranda rights, and interrogated by the FBI. Recently, Abdulmutallab, who told his interrogators all they wanted to know without being held in military custody — and, for that matter, without being tortured, which is what the hardcore cheerleaders for military detention also want — was tried and convicted in a federal court.
Hundreds of other terror suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal court, throughout the Bush years, and under Obama, but supporters of military custody like to forget this, as it conflicts with their notions, held since the aftermath of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s horrendous flight from the law, that terrorists are warriors. Underpinning it all is the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the founding document of the “war on terror,” passed the week after the 9/11 attacks. This authorizes the President to pursue anyone, anywhere who he thinks was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and it is a dreadfully open-ended excuse for endless war whose repeal I have long encouraged, but which some lawmakers have been itching to renew, even after the death of Osama bin Laden, and the obvious incentives for the winding-down of the ruinous, decade-long “war on terror.”
The fundamental opposition to the provision for the mandatory military custody of terror suspects
Depressingly, when it came to passing the Act, the world was treated to the unedifying spectacle of lawmakers arguing about whether the existing law — the AUMF, plus the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that it authorizes detention until the end of hostilities — actually applies to Americans, and whether, on that basis, this new legislation does too. Their compromise was that it would authorize whatever already exists, which only made them look rather stupid, frankly. For evidence, check out this comment from Sen. Carl Levin, as mentioned in the New York Times. “We make clear that whatever the law is, it is unaffected by this language in our bill,” he said.
However, one of the even more extraordinary things about the Senate’s custody provisions is not only that they are a mangled, scrambled mess, but also that no one who will be required to obey them wants anything to do with them. The executive branch, the military, the FBI and the CIA — no one asked for this new policy. As Spencer Ackerman noted for Wired:
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opposes the maneuver. So does CIA Director David Petraeus, who usually commands deference from senators in both parties. Pretty much every security official has lined up against the Senate detention provisions, from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to FBI Director Robert Mueller, who worry that they’ll get in the way of FBI investigations of domestic terrorists.
Also opposing the bill’s unwanted provisions are Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, Obama Counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, 16 former interrogators and counter-terrorism professionals, and 26 retired military leaders who, on Tuesday, urged Senators to support an amendment by Sen. Mark Udall, backed by Sen. Jim Webb, to strip all the troublesome provisions from the legislation (and also see Sen, Udall’s eminently sensible Washington Post op-ed). Despite this, the Udall amendment was defeated by 61 votes to 37 (with 16 Democrats voting against the amendment — see the breakdown of votes here).
In addition, President Obama has threatened to veto the bill, although whether he will remains to be seen. The mandatory military custody provisions, after all, have a get-out clause, as Andrew Cohen noted for the Atlantic a month ago, when he wrote:
Section 1032, to be applied in concert with Section 1031, contains a mandatory detention requirement for anyone “determined” (by the military) to be a member of al-Qaeda or its affiliates. It allows the executive branch, however, to “waive” this requirement by having the “Secretary of Defense … in consultation with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence” submit to Congress a written certificate that the waiver is in the “national security interests of the United States.” The executive branch, in other words, would practically have to do a song-and-dance on Capitol Hill to prosecute a terror suspect in civilian court.
Obama, of course, is no great defender of due process, as he had Osama bin Laden killed in a Wild West style and also approved the execution without any kind of charge or trial of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, in Yemen, where he was producing irritating jihadist material in English on the Internet. However, it seems likely that his defense secretary, Leon Panetta, will indeed be forced to jump through hoops if the custody provisions are not removed.
I honesty find it hard to believe that these proposals even made it as far as they did, especially as Sen. Carl Levin was involved in drafting the legislation with the usual deranged suspects — Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Liebermann — plus torture advocate Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who attempted to specifically reintroduce torture as official US policy in her own deranged bill, which was recently defeated. Astonishingly, the Senate Armed Services Committee, where this toxic brew was created, conjured it up in secret, which did not go down well with some of the lawmakers’ colleagues. Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid initially found his spine and spoke up against it, he soon remembered that it is his job to cave in on matters of importance, which he duly did, although others were not so easily swayed.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, as Andrew Rosenthal explained in the New York Times, noted with horror that the provisions were “hashed out behind closed doors without consultation with his committee [he is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee], or the Intelligence Committee, or the Defense Department, the FBI or the intelligence community.” In addition, as Andrew Cohen explained:
Leahy, and California’s Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote Sen. Reid a letter requesting that the controversial provisions be removed from the NDAA. “We concur with the Administration’s view that mandatory military custody is ‘undue and dangerous,’” they wrote, “and that these provisions would ‘severely and recklessly undermine’ our Nation’s counterterrorism efforts.”
The provisions relating to Guantánamo and why they are also important
However, while a host of critics are lined up against the mandatory military custody aspects of the bill, far less attention, unfortunately, has been paid to the provisions preventing the closure of Guantánamo. As Andrew Cohen lamented a month ago, “I think Section 1034 [banning the use of any funds to buy an alternative prison] may be the worst of the lot — a triumph of fear and prejudice over pragmatic solutions. But it doesn’t appear to have raised the hackles of even those senators who are opposed to some of the other provisions. Go figure.”
Go figure, indeed. It may, perhaps, be slightly cynical of me to note that the story of Guantánamo involves foreigners and that Americans only wake up in any kind of numbers when legal monstrosities might apply to American citizens, but there does appear to be some truth in it. If it could be demonstrated that no American could possibly end up in mandatory military custody as a result of the Senate’s mad provisions, I would be prepared to wager that hardly any Americans would bat an eyelid.
As it is, I can only hope that the two sections relating to Guantánamo, and two other sections specifically criticized by the President’s advisors (in which Congress demanded detainee reviews from the executive branch) are subjected to a veto. To make it clear, Section 1033 (which ramps up unjustifiable restrictions already implemented by lawmakers) is entitled, “Requirements for certifications relating to the transfer of detainees at United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries and other foreign entities,” and it stipulates that no transfer out of Guantánamo will be allowed “if there is a confirmed case of any individual who was detained at [Guantánamo] who was transferred to such foreign country or entity and subsequently engaged in any terrorist activity.”
As noted above, Section 1034 (which repeats previous bans imposed by lawmakers) is entitled, “Prohibition on use of funds to construct or modify facilities in the United States to house detainees transferred from United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” prevents the closure of Guantánamo by stopping the President from buying or modifying an alternative facility elsewhere, and then there are the two other provisions, both new, and both largely unnoticed.
Section 1035, entitled, “Procedures for periodic detention review of individuals detained at United States Naval Station, Guantánamo Bay, Cuba,” requires the Secretary of Defense “to submit a report to Congress for implementing the periodic review process” established in the executive order of March this year, which, outrageously, authorized the indefinite detention without charge or trial — but with periodic reviews — of 46 of the remaining 171 prisoners, on the unacceptable basis that they were too dangerous to be released, but that there was insufficient evidence to put them on trial.
Section 1036, entitled, “Procedures for Status Determinations,” states that, “Not later than 90 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the appropriate committees of Congress a report setting forth the procedures for determining the status of persons detained pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107–40) for purposes of section 1031″ — meaning that it is supposed to establish, to the satisfaction of Congress, who will be subjected to mandatory military custody.
The response of the President’s Office, in its letter threatening a veto, spells out the administration’s opposition to these sections, and is of interest. The President’s advisors noted:
The certification and waiver, required by section 1033 before a detainee may be transferred from Guantánamo Bay to a foreign country, continue to hinder the Executive branch’s ability to exercise its military, national security, and foreign relations activities. While these provisions may be intended to be somewhat less restrictive than the analogous provisions in current law, they continue to pose unnecessary obstacles, effectively blocking transfers that would advance our national security interests, and would, in certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The Executive branch must have the flexibility to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.
Section 1034′s ban on the use of funds to construct or modify a detention facility in the United States is an unwise intrusion on the military’s ability to transfer its detainees as operational needs dictate.
Section 1035 conflicts with the consensus-based interagency approach to detainee reviews required under Executive Order No. 13567, which establishes procedures to ensure that periodic review decisions are informed by the most comprehensive information and the considered views of all relevant agencies.
Section 1036, in addition to imposing onerous requirements, conflicts with procedures for detainee reviews in the field that have been developed based on many years of experience by military officers and the Department of Defense.
The President’s advisors concluded:
In short, the matters addressed in these provisions are already well regulated by existing procedures and have traditionally been left to the discretion of the Executive branch.
Broadly speaking, the detention provisions in this bill micromanage the work of our experienced counter-terrorism professionals, including our military commanders, intelligence professionals, seasoned counter-terrorism prosecutors, or other operatives in the field. These professionals have successfully led a Government-wide effort to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates and adherents over two consecutive Administrations. The Administration believes strongly that it would be a mistake for Congress to overrule or limit the tactical flexibility of our Nation’s counter-terrorism professionals.
This is not quite the end of the road for the NDAA, as it must now be consolidated with the version previously passed by the House of Representatives, which I wrote about here and here. However, it is almost certain that the President will soon be required to make clear what he thinks.
If Obama is wavering, as is his habit, I would suggest that he takes note of the fact that the election season is nearly upon us, and that, as we approach that frenzy of hype and hyperbole, he needs do something to make his progressive supporters remember why they might want to vote for him, rather than just hoping — or presuming — that they will not vote against him. In short, the President needs to veto this bill, and stand up for US justice, and the still-pressing need to close Guantánamo, rather than doing as he has so often on national security issues, and caving in to pressure.
Andy Worthington is a journalist and historian, based in London. He is the author of The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of the 759 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison, the first book to tell the stories of all the detainees in America’s illegal prison. For more information, visit his blog here.