WASHINGTON -- Congress stripped a provision Tuesday from a defense bill that aimed to shield Americans from the possibility of being imprisoned indefinitely without trial by the military. The provision was replaced with a passage that appears to give citizens little protection from indefinite detention.
The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 was added by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), but there was no similar language in the version of the bill that passed the House, and it was dumped from the final bill released Tuesday after a conference committee from both chambers worked out a unified measure.
It declared that "An authorization to use military force, a declaration of war, or any similar authority shall not authorize the detention without charge or trial of a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States apprehended in the United States, unless an Act of Congress expressly authorizes such detention."
The provision sparked a heated debate in the Senate, but ultimately passed by a wide majority with both supporters and opponents of U.S. terrorist detention practices voting for it, citing differing interpretations. Feinstein offered the amendment to clarify a part of the 2012 NDAA that for the first time codified the ability of the military and White House to detain terrorism suspects.
Spokespeople for Senate committee leaders did immediately answer why the amendment was stripped, but pointed to the language that replaced it:
Nothing in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107–40; 50 U.S.C. 1541) or the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (Public Law 112–81) shall be construed to deny the availability of the writ of habeas corpus or to deny any Constitutional rights in a court ordained or established by or under Article III of the Constitution to any person inside the United States who would be entitled to the availability of such writ or to such rights in the absence of such laws.
The new provision appears to do little, because the Supreme Court has already declared that the writ of habeas corpus -- requiring that someone be presented to a judge -- applies to all people. The more difficult part of whether people deserve a trial remains unsettled, and the new provision does not appear to resolve it.
"This language doesn't do anything of substance," said Raha Wala, a lawyer in the law and national security program of Human Rights First. "It doesn't ban indefinite detention within the United States or change anything about existing law."
Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the FY 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that place severe restrictions on the President’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. House and Senate negotiators are currently negotiating a final version of the NDAA, but it is likely to include unreasonable restrictions that make it difficult to close Guantanamo.
President Obama can fight to close Guantanamo by vetoing the NDAA. Doing so will allow him to make careful and reasonable decisions about how to proceed with the closing of the detention center. Please contact the President now.
In 2009, shortly after he took office, President Obama promised to close Guantanamo – an international symbol of torture. He was unable to keep this promise during his first term, but, shortly before the 2012 elections, he re-iterated his commitment to closing Guantanamo. Doing so is an important step toward ending the legacy of U.S. torture.
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