President Obama is facing heated criticism from all sides of the political spectrum over his decision to sign the controversial 2012 National Defense Authorization Act into law.
Obama had threatened to veto the $662 billion measure over a number of provisions within the bill. These include requiring the military to take custody over suspected terrorists, along with authorizing the military to detain them indefinitely without trial, even if the suspect is an American citizen. The bill would also extend a ban on transfers from the expensive Guantánamo Bay detention center.
On Wednesday, the White House reversed its position and decided to drop the veto threat, signaling that Obama will sign the bill once it reaches his desk. As a result, libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats — who are concerned that the bill seems to directly contradict the 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments to the Constitution — are livid with Obama’s decision.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) said on the Senate floor that “detaining citizens without a court trial is not American.”
“We’re talking about American citizens who can be taken from the United States and sent to a camp at Guantánamo Bay and held indefinitely. It puts every single citizen American at risk,” he said. “Really, what security does this indefinite detention of Americans give us? The first and flawed premise, both here and in the badly named Patriot Act, is that our pre-9/11 police powers were insufficient to stop terrorism. This is simply not borne out by the facts.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, echoed Paul’s comments.
“Congress is essentially authorizing the indefinite imprisonment of American citizens, without charge,” she said. “We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge.”
Criticism of the bill is not limited to politicians. While Paul and Feinstein are concerned about the precedent that the NDAA will set for law enforcement, others are concerned that the provisions could actually be detrimental to national security.
FBI Director Robert Mueller III said under questioning by the Senate Intelligence Committee that he fears the law would confuse the roles of the FBI and the military.
The bill “talks about not interrupting interrogations, which is good but gaining cooperation is something different than continuing an interrogation,” Mueller said. “My concern is that … you don’t want to have FBI and military showing up at the scene at the same time on a covered person [under the law], or with a covered person there may be some uncovered persons there, with some uncertainty as to who has the role and who’s going to do what.”
Even some members of the military believe that the provision is a bad idea. As retired four-star Marine generals Charles C. Krulak and Joseph P. Hoar wrote in a New York Times editorial, the provision “would expand the battlefield to include the United States — and hand Osama bin Laden an unearned victory long after his well-earned demise.”
A second provision would mandate military custody for most terrorism suspects. It would force on the military responsibilities it hasn’t sought. This would violate not only the spirit of the post-Reconstruction act limiting the use of the armed forces for domestic law enforcement but also our trust with service members, who enlist believing that they will never be asked to turn their weapons on fellow Americans.
Mandatory military custody would reduce, if not eliminate, the role of federal courts in terrorism cases. Since 9/11, the shaky, untested military commissions have convicted only six people on terror-related charges, compared with more than 400 in the civilian courts.
These are not partisan attacks against the President; they are serious concerns that these provisions would do far more harm than good, coming from national security experts with no political agenda.
Overall, the NDAA is both bad policy and bad politics for the Obama Administration. Aside from the serious consequences outlined by Paul, Feinstein, Krulak and Hoar, Obama runs the risk of alienating his left wing base at the worst possible time by backtracking on his promise to veto the bill. This could prove to be among the most politically damaging decisions of Obama’s first term.