Congress clears $662 billion defense bill

Thursday - 12/15/2011, 5:33pm EST

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress passed a massive $662 billion defense bill Thursday after months of wrangling over how to handle captured terrorist suspects without violating Americans' constitutional rights.

A last-minute compromise produced a truce but lawmakers said the fight's not over.

The Senate voted 86-13 for the measure and will send it to President Barack Obama for his signature. The bill would authorize money for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and national security programs in the Energy Department for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The legislation is $27 billion less than Obama wanted and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon this year, a reflection of deficit-driven federal budgets, the end of the Iraq war and the drawdown in Afghanistan.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, the House voted 283-136 for the measure late Wednesday. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Thursday the cooperation was a "little ray of sunshine" in a bitterly divided Washington.

The comment belied a fierce struggle over provisions on suspected terrorists that have pitted the White House against Congress, divided Republicans and Democrats and drawn the wrath of civil rights groups. The White House initially threatened to veto the legislation but dropped that warning late Wednesday, saying last-minute congressional changes no longer challenge the president's ability to prosecute the war on terror.

Two provisions have created the most controversy.

One would require military custody for foreign terrorist suspects linked to al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting or attacking the United States. The suspects could be transferred to civilian custody for trial, and the president would have final say on determining how the transfer would occur. Under pressure from Obama and his national security team, lawmakers added language that says nothing in the bill may be "construed to affect the existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or any other domestic law enforcement agency with regard to a covered person, regardless whether such covered person is held in military custody."

The attorney general, in consultation with the defense secretary, would decide on whether to try the individual in federal court or by military tribunal. The president could waive the entire requirement based on national security.

The second provision would deny suspected terrorists, including U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention. It reaffirms the post-Sept. 11 authorization for the use of military force that allows indefinite detention of enemy combatants. The provision includes a Senate-passed compromise that says nothing in the legislation may be "construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States."

Conservative Republicans, Democrats and civil rights groups have warned that the provision would allow the government to hold U.S. citizens indefinitely.

"If these provisions deny American citizens their due process rights under a new, nebulous set of directives, it not only would make us less safe, but it will serve as an unprecedented threat to our constitutional liberties," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she and several other lawmakers, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., would introduce legislation to ensure that no U.S. citizen is held indefinitely without trial.

The sponsors of the defense bill challenged the criticism.

"Those who say that we have written into law a new authority to detain American citizens until the end of hostilities are wrong," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

Citing the courts, Levin has repeatedly pointed out that a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, in a case called Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely.

"I believe that if an American citizen joins a foreign army or a hostile force like al-Qaida that has declared war and organized a war against us and attacks us, that that person can be captured and detained as an enemy combatant under the law of war," the senator said.

Said McCain: "The language in this bill will not affect any Americans engaging in the pursuits of their constitutional rights."

Agitating for a power-sharing role in the war on terror, Congress had pushed the bill into an escalating fight over whether to treat suspects as prisoners of war or as criminals.