In The News
Kimberly Willingham (202) 225-3035
May 17, 2012 By Susan Davis, USA TODAY
Washington - WASHINGTON – An ideologically diverse alliance that includes liberal Democrats, Tea Party Republicans, and the libertarian-minded Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is attempting to throw out a post-9/11 law that grants the president broad authority to indefinitely detain any person apprehended on American soil, including U.S. citizens, without due process if they are suspected of terrorist activity.
Reps. Adam Smith of Washington, the Armed Services Committee's top Democrat, and Justin Amash, R-Mich., a Tea Party-aligned freshman, want to amend the 2013 defense authorization bill to end the executive authority and reassert that any person arrested on U.S. soil will be processed through the justice system and not the military. They cite mutually held concerns about civil liberties and the constitutionality of the rarely invoked authority.
The House is debating the defense authorization bill this week. Their amendment does not apply to suspected terrorists apprehended abroad or detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
"The president does not need this authority to keep us safe," Smith said Wednesday, stating that the authority has only been invoked three times while the U.S. court system has successfully prosecuted more than 400 people accused of terrorist activity. "Our Constitution works, due process works, protecting civil liberties works."
Smith and Amash said they were not sure if their amendment could pass the House, but voiced cautious optimism citing public momentum since last year's defense authorization bill put the president's indefinite detention authority into law. President Obama signed the bill but expressed "serious reservations" about the detention authority.
"I'm quite confident we're going to get most if not all Democrats on this," Smith said. Amash said he is working to build a coalition of GOP support for the amendment as well.
"A lot of people think the American people aren't paying attention, but they are," said Paul, a civil liberties advocate who has hammered the issue in his two unsuccessful presidential campaigns. "This must be rectified. This cannot stand."
On Monday, a diverse group of 25 special interests, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Gun Owners of America, circulated a letter to House members in support of the Smith-Amash amendment. On Tuesday, 40 retired generals and admirals also sent a letter to lawmakers. "Those detained in the U.S. should not be held indefinitely without charge or trial or forced into military custody," they wrote.
Rep. Buck McKeon, a California Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, supports a competing amendment by Republican Reps. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Jeff Landry of Louisiana and Scott Rigell of Virginia, said Claude Chafin, a McKeon spokesman. That provision affirms that no U.S. citizens will be denied their constitutional rights, but it does not extend constitutional protections to non-citizens arrested on U.S. soil, as the Smith-Amash amendment does.
"My first and my most important priority is American citizens. After that, it wanes," Landry said, adding he was confident his language could pass the House.
"The chairman is confident (the 2012 defense authorization law) is robust and clear, but he is always willing to reaffirm civil liberties as part of what is rightly an ongoing conversation that Congress ought to have about this detention policy," Chafin said.
Gohmert-Landry-Rigell backers say the other provision extends too many constitutional protections to non-citizens and would give incentives to terrorists to carry out attacks on U.S. soil.
"Unfortunately, it's what the Constitution says," Smith countered, citing constitutional language that provides protections to all persons, not just U.S. citizens. "There's an argument that you should carve out citizens and treat them differently … that in and of itself violates the Constitution."
The issue is another chapter in an ongoing post 9/11 debate on balancing national security interests with civil liberties, said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, who opposes the Smith-Amash amendment.
"Some of these fights are the same debates we've been having since 9/11," he said, Thornberry agrees with McKeon that current law is sound and in U.S. security interests . "Before you start to change the legal framework," he said, "you better be very careful about it."