The $662 billion military spending bill expected to go before both houses of Congress later this week includes controversial provisions allowing the US military to arrest and indefinitely detain, without trial, anyone suspected of terrorism-related crimes, including American citizens.
A conference committee comprised of members of the House and Senate (including Maine representative Chellie Pingree) agreed Monday night on language confirming that stance — a change from current policy that has civil-rights advocates deeply worried. Lawmakers did "compromise" by clarifying that US citizens are exempt from the requirement that any suspected member of al Qaeda be taken into military custody (as opposed to that of civilian law authorities), that the FBI's authority to question and detain suspects remains unchanged, and that the president can waive the military-custody provision.
While these provisions received limited attention from the mainstream media, they were cause for concern for everyone from the American Civil Liberties Union to FBI and Defense Department officials. The Obama administration, claiming that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) compromises its executive power with regard to terrorist threats, was considering vetoing the entire bill. When it comes to terrorism, the White House wants more authority and flexibility in deciding whom to prosecute — and how. It has yet to weigh in on the conferenced bill.
Both of Maine's Republican senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, voted for the Senate version of the NDAA, and against an amendment (offered by Democratic senator Mark Udall, of Colorado) that would have stripped that bill of three contentious detainee-related sections.
Through spokesman Kevin Kelley, Collins said the Udall amendment was "too sweeping and would eliminate important detainee provisions that undoubtedly make our country safer." (Snowe did not respond to a request for comment.)
However, Collins did vote in favor of two amendments offered by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, of California, including one that makes the distinction between the arrest of a suspected foreign terrorist and an American citizen.
"Senator Collins believes that it is imperative that American citizens detained on US soil be entitled to the protections guaranteed by the Constitution," Kelley said. "If a foreign terrorist is caught overseas, or on American soil, then that suspected terrorist usually should be treated as an enemy combatant and, as a general rule, handled through the military tribunal system. But if an American is suspected of a terrorist act and is caught on American soil, then that person should go through the American criminal justice system."
Pingree, a Democrat, who was part of House-Senate negotiations early this week, pushed to preserve American citizens' basic rights. (Maine representative Mike Michaud also expressed concerns about the NDAA's impact on civil rights.)
"I am actively opposing the parts of this legislation that allow the military to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely and prohibits the government from trying them in civilian court," Pingree told the Phoenix before conference discussions began. "It's an offense against the due process our justice system is based on and opens the door to eroding our Constitutional rights. Moreover, we don't need it. Our court system has safely and effectively prosecuted hundreds of terrorists. These provisions grant powers the executive branch neither needs or wants."
Her concerns kept her from signing the final compromise bill (she was one of two members who didn't sign). According to a spokesman, she plans to vote against the bill when it returns to the House.