President Barack Obama does not plan to veto a defense bill seeking to direct more terrorism suspects into military custody, the White House signaled Wednesday afternoon.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that changes lawmakers made to the legislation to accomodate White House concerns were sufficient to avoid a veto. The statement was issued just before the House was expected to vote on the conferenced House-Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Obama’s decision disappointed members of his liberal base, some of whom took comments from the White House in recent months to indicate an increased willingness on the president’s part to fight for his approach to the war on terror. By deciding not to veto, however, the president may have taken away one point Republicans could have used to argue that he favors a law-enforcement approach to fighting terrorism and that he was even willing to hold up various defense programs in order to insist on his approach.
“After intensive engagement by senior administration officials and the President himself, the Administration has succeeded in prompting the authors of the detainee provisions to make several important changes, including the removal of problematic provisions. While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counterterrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the President additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented, consistent with our values and the rule of law,” Carney said in his statement.
“As a result of these changes, we have concluded that the language does not challenge or constrain the President’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the American people, and the President’s senior advisors will not recommend a veto. However, if in the process of implementing this law we determine that it will negatively impact our counterterrorism professionals and undercut our commitment to the rule of law, we expect that the authors of these provisions will work quickly and tirelessly to correct these problems,” Carney added.
Critics of the detainee provisions were clearly disheartened by Obama’s decision and said he had caved to political pressure.
“The President should be leading, but instead he’s apparently prepared to compromise national security and the rule of law for politics,” said Raha Wala of Human Rights First. “This bill bundles the worst counterterrorism ideas devised since 9/11 into a nice little package. As a former constitutional law professor, the President should know better.”
Word that Obama does not intend to veto the bill came just hours after FBI Director Robert Mueller testified that, despite the changes to the legislation, he was still concerned that it could trigger confusion in terrorism cases and potentially lead to the loss of valuable intelligence from terrorism suspects.
The White House issued a veto threat against earlier versions of the bill, including one passed by the Senate in November. The legislation has produced an outcry from civil liberites and human rights groups, as well as a smattering of libertarian voices, who believe that it prolongs the war Congress authorized after the Septemeber 11, 2001 attacks and can be read to authorize the indefinite military detention of Americans accused of working with Al Qaeda or associated groups. Most proponents of the detainee language in the bill contend it does not alter the scope of existing law-of-war detention authority.
On the House floor Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers disputed the impact of the bill. Some Democrats said the bill authorized a kind of permanent war and could lead to U.S. citizens being detained without trial. Republicans and a group of Democrats from the House Armed Services Committee said those fears were unjustified.
“This legislation erodes our society and our national security by militarizing our justice system and empowering the president to detain anyone in the United States, including American citizens without charge or trial, without due process,” Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said. “If this is going to continue to be the direction of our country, we don’t need a Democratic Party, a Republican party, an Occupy Wall Street party or a Tea Party. We need a Mayflower party….this legislation goes too far.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers of Michigan took to the floor to read a letter from former FBI Director William Sessions expressing concern about the bill.
“I know you’re very learned people and very conscientious but, please, when the heads of the FBI, Republicans, judges all tell you that you’re doing the wrong thing, what does it take for us to vote this down?” Conyers asked. “It will now make it OK to lock up U.S. citizens.”