The Senate has rejected an attempt to remove language from the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the administration to place terror suspects in military detention indefinitely.
An amendment proposed by Colorado Democratic Sen. Mark Udall to remove the language was defeated by a vote of 61 to 37. The dispute generated fierce debate both inside the halls of the Congress and in the press.
The bill currently mandates military custody for certain terror suspects. If passed, it would take prosecutorial responsibility that currently lies with the Department of Justice and domestic law enforcement agencies like the FBI and transfer it to the Department of Defense.
Udall penned a column in the Washington Post arguing that the provision would place an undue burden on the military, possibly compromising national security. He cited the concerns of Defense Secretary Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
“The provisions,” Udall wrote, “would require the military to dedicate a significant number of personnel to capturing and holding terrorism suspects — in some cases indefinitely — even those apprehended on U.S. soil.”
The White House also expressed concern that compliance with the new provision could compromise the president’s ability to deal with security threats. President Barack Obama threatened a veto should the bill reach his desk.
The provision’s sponsors, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, argue that it not only provides a waiver should the administration decide to place a suspect in civilian custody, but also “codifies detention authority that has been adopted by two administrations and upheld in the courts.”
Others have expressed concern that the provision could threaten the civil liberties of American citizens.
Noting South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s assertion that the bill would “say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield,” Chris Anders of the ACLU warned that “the power is so broad that even U.S. citizens could be swept up by the military and the military could be used far from any battlefield, even within the United States itself.”
According to Business Insider, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul had particularly strong words during debate on the Senate floor, at one point telling McCain that “should we err today and remove some of the most important checks on state power in the name of fighting terrorism, well then the terrorists have won.”
“Detaining American citizens without a court trial is not American,” Paul said.