WASHINGTON — Ignoring a presidential veto threat, the Democratic-controlled Senate moved methodically Thursday to complete a massive defense bill that would deny suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation’s borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention.
The Senate rejected an effort by Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein to limit a military custody requirement for suspects to those captured outside the United States. The vote was 55-45. Feinstein, D-Calif., said her goal was to ensure “the military won’t be roaming our streets looking for suspected terrorists.”
The issue divided Democrats with nine senators, many facing re-election next year, breaking with the leadership and administration to vote against the amendment. Republicans held firm, with only three holdouts backing Feinstein’s effort.
In an escalating fight with the White House, the bill would ramp up the role of the military in handling terror suspects. The bill’s language challenges citizens’ rights under the Constitution, tests the boundaries of executive and legislative branch authority and sets up a showdown with the Democratic commander in chief.
It reflects the politically charged dispute over whether to treat suspected terrorists as prisoners of war or criminals. The administration insists that the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents need flexibility in prosecuting the war on terror after they’ve succeeded in killing al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki.
In its veto threat, the White House said it cannot accept any legislation that “challenges or constrains the president’s authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller have opposed the provisions.
Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, and that Obama has failed to produce a consistent policy on handling terror suspects.
The bill would require military custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. American citizens would be exempt. The bill does allow the executive branch to waive the authority based on national security and hold a suspect in civilian custody.
The legislation also would give the government the authority to have the military hold an individual suspected of terrorism indefinitely, without a trial. That provision had no exception for a U.S. citizen.
Feinstein offered another amendment, one that would prohibit the indefinite detention of a U.S. citizen without charges or trial. She has said the last time the government held U.S. citizens indefinitely was when Japanese-Americans were interned in camps during World War II.
Kirk has called the provision unconstitutional, violating the Fourth Amendment and the right of individuals to be secure in their homes from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Countered Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.: “We need the authority to hold those individuals in military custody so we aren’t reading them Miranda rights.”