Big Fight Brewing In Senate Over Defense Policy Bill

A big fight is brewing in the Senate over the national defense policy bill. It’s legislation that would authorize a pay raise and other benefits for U.S. troops.

But the bipartisan bill also contains a provision about detainees that’s raising alarms at the White House, because the Obama administration says the measure would tie its hands in some terrorism cases.

The defense authorization bill has pit President Obama’s national security advisers against some prominent Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Carl Levin, a lawmaker from Michigan who usually finds himself on the same side as the Obama administration, acknowledged the odd situation.

Levin was asked Friday at the Council on Foreign Relations about America’s changing role in Iraq and when the defense bill would come up for a vote in the Senate.

“Amazing to be able to say that a question about Iraq is easier to handle than a question about the defense authorization bill,” Levin said. “But that’s the situation in the U.S. Senate.”

The bill made it through Levin’s Armed Services Committee in June with only one “no” vote.

But since that time, lots of objections have emerged. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, said earlier this month that he’s holding up a floor vote until the bill gets an overhaul to respond to White House concerns.

On Monday, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who leads the Intelligence Committee and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Reid to warn the detainee provision would “undermine our nation’s counterterrorism efforts.”

The Powerful Reach of the U.S. Military

One red flag for the administration is language that would automatically send suspects affiliated with al Qaeda and suspected of plotting against Americans into the custody of the U.S. military, not the FBI, unless the president signs a special waiver.

The Pentagon’s top lawyer, Jeh Johnson, put his fears this way in a speech last week at the conservative leaning Heritage Foundation: “There is risk in permitting and expecting the U.S. military to extend its powerful reach into traditional areas typically reserved for civilian law enforcement in this country.”

Opponents of the idea point out that in Detroit, where the so-called underwear bomber landed after his failed attempt to take down an airplane two years ago, there aren’t troops ready to take suspects into custody on short notice.

But it’s another idea that’s really got human rights groups worried, a proposal that they say would let the U.S. military detain terrorism suspects — including, they argue, some American citizens — without charges or trial.

The advocates released a video that places that idea alongside other regrettable moments in history.

“During World War II tens of thousands of American citizens were detained indefinitely,” the video intones. “During the McCarthy era the Internal Security Act authorized detention of people based on suspicion they might be enemies.”

Chris Anders works at the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped produce the video.

“This is a really big problem…because once someone is in that kind of indefinite detention, particularly under the control of the military, people could spend literally years trying to get out of it,” Anders says.

But South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who helped broker the bipartisan compromise on the defense bill, couldn’t disagree more.

“We’re here because the White House cannot tell the ACLU no,” Graham said on the Senate floor last week. “This is not the Senate holding up this bill. It’s the White House holding up this bill because they have an irrational view of what we need to be doing with detainees.”

Debating The Role of Congress

Ben Wittes, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who closely follows national security debates, says he sympathizes with the Obama administration’s concerns about some language in the defense bill.

But on the other hand, Wittes says, “Congress’s desire to participate in the creation of…a stable legal framework for the conflict that we’re engaged in is laudable and not undesirable.”

The fight could be coming to a head soon.

South Carolina’s Graham and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who also signed onto the legislative compromise, have been pressuring Senate leaders to move forward with a vote on the defense bill because they say a delay could jeopardize salary increases and health benefits for service members.

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