WASHINGTON – The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday faulted the White House and fellow Democrats for mischaracterizing provisions in the defense bill dealing with the handling of suspected terrorists.
In lengthy speeches on the Senate floor, Democrat Carl Levin delivered a point-by-point rebuttal of both the White House's critique of the detainee policy and criticism leveled by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. His comments came a day after the White House threatened to veto the legislation over its requirement to hold captured terrorism suspects in military custody and language limiting the administration's authority to transfer detainees.
"The words in the committee bill are clear," Levin said. "But they should not be exaggerated or misinterpreted."
On Thursday, the White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement saying it supported the broader defense bill but could not accept any legislation that "challenges or constrains the president's authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation."
Feinstein, one of several Democrats who object to the provisions, said they would impose unnecessary limits on the commander in chief's authority.
A major point of contention is the provision requiring military custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of Al Qaeda or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. The administration argues that military custody, rather than civilian, would hamper the FBI and other law enforcement agencies seeking intelligence from suspected terrorists.
Levin repeatedly argued that the administration attacks ignore one element of the provision. He also insisted that the committee revised the bill to address administration demands.
"In fact, it does not mandate military custody and it does not tie the administration's hands, because it includes a national security waiver which allows suspects to be held in civilian custody," Levin said.
Administration officials pointed out that counterterrorism requires split-second decisions that leave no time for worrying about waivers. The administration also insists that lawmakers are trying to limit the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents after they've succeeded in killing Usama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, delivering two body blows to Al Qaeda.