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.
Their effort comes as a federal court in New York on Wednesday struck down as unconstitutional a portion of the law that gives the government broad powers to regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.
An 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.
Last year, Congress passed a far-reaching defense bill that 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.
In the months since, however, members of Congress have faced a backlash over the detention language.
Conservatives fear that it 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. Several Democrats also have criticized the provision as an example of government overreach and an unnecessary obstacle to the Obama administration's war against terrorism, creating the unique political coalition of opponents.
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.
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."
Smith said the amendment had a "reasonable chance of passage."
In New York, U.S. District Judge Katherine Forrest in Manhattan said in a ruling in a case brought by journalists, scholars and others that "an individual could run the risk of substantially supporting or directly supporting an associated force without even being aware that he or she was doing so."
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."
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.