The Skeptics

The Real Trouble With the Defense Authorization Bill

The Senate yesterday passed the 2012 defense-authorization bill. It includes a controversial provision meant to put al-Qaeda suspects and their associates in military custody rather than prosecute them as criminals. The White House has rather weakly threatened a veto, complaining primarily that the bill undercuts their discretion in dealing with terrorists.

If the White House vetoes the bill, it will be for the wrong reasons. The trouble is not what the law mandates but what it affirms. It does not require the president to put any terrorists in military custody but rather to comply with a new bureaucratic process if he chooses not to do so. Even as we move toward the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the law affirms a presidential power to detain anyone, including American citizens, in the name of fighting a nebulous and seemingly permanent terrorist menace. That is bad for both civil liberties and for our ability to think clearly about terrorism.

Most debate about the bill concerns section 1032. It says that the armed forces “shall hold” anyone that is part of al-Qaeda or an associated force and participants in an attack on the United States or its coalition partners for the course of hostilities authorized by Congress in 2001—and dispose of those suspects under laws of wars. American citizens are excluded. Thanks to a compromise negotiated by Armed Service Committee Chair Carl Levin and Ranking Member John McCain, the section now allows the secretary of defense, after consulting with the secretary of state and director of national intelligence, to keep the suspect in civilian courts by informing Congress that doing so serves national security.

The administration objects to 1032 largely because it undercuts their discretion. However, as Levin and McCain note in a recent op-ed, the administration still “determines whether a detainee meets the criteria for military custody.” The president could presumably just decline to label a detainee as someone fitting the requirements of military detention in the first place and try him in civilian court without getting a waiver from the secretary of defense.

The provision’s main relevance is as a talking point. Republicans already fond of castigating the president for allowing alleged terrorists to have their day in court can pretend that he is ignoring this law when he does so.

The real trouble with the bill is the preceding section, 1031. It “affirms” that the authorization of military force passed prior to the invasion of Afghanistan allows the president, through the military, to detain without trial al-Qaeda members, Taliban fighters, associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States and those that support those groups. Nothing excludes American citizens.

The section says that it does not expand presidential war powers, but that contradicts its other language and common sense. By explicitly endorsing constitutionally dubious powers that the president already claims, Congress makes those claims more likely to survive legal challenge.

The 2001 Authorization of Military Force allows the president to make war on “nations, organizations, or persons” that he determines to have been involved in or aided the September 11 attacks and those that harbored these groups. Effectively, that meant al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Our last two presidents have used that authority to claim the right to kill or indefinitely detain anyone, anywhere that they decide is associated with some arm of al-Qaeda. The courts have trimmed these powers in ways that remain uncertain, particularly as applied to U.S. citizens. In Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. military has the power to detain without trial Americans captured on foreign battlefields but that the detainee can challenge the detention in court. Contrary to Carl Levin’s assertions, the ruling did not say that people seized in the United States fit that category.

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