The Senate on Thursday blocked a second attempt to spare U.S. citizens from potential indefinite military detentions and was set to vote on a third effort to do the same later in the day.
Under a provision of the mammoth defense authorization bill, the military would be granted the authority to detain and hold anyone indefinitely if that individual is suspected of having ties to al Qaeda, including any American arrested in the United States.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, offered an amendment to curb the measure by specifying that it applied to suspects captured “abroad.” The amendment failed on a vote of 45 to 55. Feinstein was expected to get a vote later in the day on another amendment that would explicitly exclude U.S. citizens from military detention.
The heated debate has crossed party lines, with three Republicans — Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Mark Kirk (Ill.) — favoring the amendment, and 10 Democrats and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) opposing it. The debate also has left many Americans scratching their heads as to whether Congress is actually attempting to authorize the indefinite detention of Americans by the military without charges.
But proponents — led by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee — say that is exactly what the war on terror requires. They argued that the bill simply codifies precedents set by the Supreme Court and removes uncertainty, which they said would better protect the country.
Ayotte argued that passing either of Feinstein’s amendments would hurt security.
“I would ask my colleagues to reject [the amendments], which … would take away the authority of the executive branch as allowed by our Supreme Court and would bring us back, would make us less safe in this country,” said Ayotte, the former New Hampshire attorney general. “We have to protect America and make sure that we get the maximum information to prevent future attacks on this country.”
That argument did not sit well with Feinstein, who countered that military detentions and prosecutions have produced poor results, while civilian law enforcement and federal courts have racked up numerous convictions, lengthy prison sentences and a perfect terrorism prevention record.
“I really object to the statement just made that this will make the United States of America less safe,” Feinstein said. “Ten years of experience has seen that it has not. Plot after plot after plot has been interrupted. I have served on the Intelligence Committee for 11 years now. … This country is much more safe because things have finally come together with a process that is working.”
An administration official laughed at Ayotte’s contention that she wanted to protect the executive branch, since the Obama administration has threatened to veto the bill if it passes in its current form. The official also questioned Ayotte’s expertise on the issue despite her prosecutorial background.
“This is someone who has been in the Senate all of 11 months and has shown absolutely no substance on this argument,” the official said. “As attorney general, she didn’t have a single [counterterrorism] case, not one.”
Feinstein also insisted that the military is not the answer to every safety issue, especially if using the armed forces means establishing new infringements on liberty.