Obama to sign indefinite detention bill into law

After spending months threatening a veto, the president decides to codify the first such bill since the 1950s VIDEO

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Obama to sign indefinite detention bill into lawPresident Barack Obama speaks to troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. (Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(updated below)

In one of the least surprising developments imaginable, President Obama – after spending months threatening to veto the Levin/McCain detention bill – yesterday announced that he would instead sign it into law (this is the same individual, of course, who unequivocally vowed when seeking the Democratic nomination to support a filibuster of “any bill that includes retroactive immunity for telecom[s],” only to turn around – once he had the nomination secure — and not only vote against such a filibuster, but to vote in favor of the underlying bill itself, so this is perfectly consistent with his past conduct). As a result, the final version of the Levin/McCain bill will be enshrined as law this week as part of the the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). I wrote about the primary provisions and implications of this bill last week, and won’t repeat those points here.

The ACLU said last night that the bill contains “harmful provisions that some legislators have said could authorize the U.S. military to pick up and imprison without charge or trial civilians, including American citizens, anywhere in the world” and added: “if President Obama signs this bill, it will damage his legacy.” Human Rights Watch said that Obama’s decision “does enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad” and that “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.”



Both groups pointed out that this is the first time indefinite detention has been enshrined in law since the McCarthy era of the 1950s, when — as the ACLU put it — “President Truman had the courage to veto” the Internal Security Act of 1950 on the ground that it “would make a mockery of our Bill of Rights” and then watched Congress override the veto. That Act authorized the imprisonment of Communists and other “subversives” without the necessity of full trials or due process (many of the most egregious provisions of that bill were repealed by the 1971 Non-Detention Act, and are now being rejuvenated by these War on Terror policies of indefinite detention). President Obama, needless to say, is not Harry Truman. He’s not even the Candidate Obama of 2008 who repeatedly insisted that due process and security were not mutually exclusive and who condemned indefinite detention as “black hole” injustice.

There have been several persistent myths circulating about this bill and President Obama’s position on it that need to be clarified once and for all:

First, while the powers this bill enshrines are indeed radical and dangerous, most of them already exist. That’s because first the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have aggressively argued that the original 2001 AUMF already empowers them to imprison people without charges, use force against even U.S. citizens without due process (Anwar Awlaki), and target not only members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban (as the law states) but also anyone who “substantially supports” those groups and/or “associated forces” (whatever those terms mean). That’s why this bill states that it does not intend to change the 2001 AUMF (even as it codifies far broader language defining the scope of the war) or the detention powers of the President, and it’s why they purposely made the bill vague on whether it expressly authorizes military detention of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil: it’s because the bill’s proponents and the White House both believe that the President already possesses these broadened powers with or without this bill. With a couple of exceptions, this bill just “clarifies” — and codifies — the powers President Obama has already claimed, seized and exercised.

I’m embedding the video below of the segment I did last night on Cenk Uygur’s TV program where I elaborated on this point: this is not to mitigate how heinous this bill is, as there are real dangers to codifying these powers in law with bipartisan Congressional support as opposed to having the President unilaterally seize them and have some lower courts recognize them. Instead, it’s a reflection of how horrible the civil liberties status quo has become under the Bush and Obama administrations. This is the reason why civil libertarians have been so harshly critical of this President. It’s the reason civil liberties groups have been saying things like this even when saying them was so unpopular: it’s because Obama has, for three years now, been defending and entrenching exactly the detention powers this law vests, but doing it through radical legal theories, warped interpretations of the 2001 AUMF, continuities with the Bush/Cheney template, and devotion to Endless War and the civil liberties assaults it entails. See the newspaper excerpts below for more proof of this.

Second, as I documented at length last week, Obama’s veto threat was never about substantive objections to the detention powers vested by this bill; put another way, he was never objecting to the bill on civil liberties grounds. Obama, as I documented last week and again below, is not an opponent of indefinite detention; he’s a vigorous proponent of it, as evidenced by his continuous, multi-faceted embrace of that policy.

Obama’s objections to this bill had nothing to do with civil liberties, due process or the Constitution. It had everything to do with Executive power. The White House’s complaint was that Congress had no business tying the hands of the President when deciding who should go into military detention, who should be denied a trial, which agencies should interrogate suspects (the FBI or the CIA). Such decisions, insisted the White House, are for the President, not Congress, to make. In other words, his veto threat was not grounded in the premise that indefinite military detention is wrong; it was grounded in the premise that it should be the President who decides who goes into military detention and why, not Congress.

Even the one substantive objection the White House expressed to the bill — mandatory military detention for accused American Terrorists captured on U.S. soil — was about Executive power, not due process or core liberties. The proof of that — the definitive, conclusive proof — is that Sen. Carl Levin has several times disclosed that it was the White House which demanded removal of a provision in his original draft that would have exempted U.S. citizens from military detention (see the clip of Levin explaining this in the video below). In other words, this was an example of the White House demanding greater detention powers in the bill by insisting on the removal of one of its few constraints (the prohibition on military detention for Americans captured on U.S. soil). That’s because the White House’s North Star on this bill —  as they repeatedly made clear — was Presidential discretion: they were going to veto the bill if it contained any limits on the President’s detention powers, regardless of whether those limits forced him to put people in military prison or barred him from doing so.

Any doubt that this was the White House’s only concern with the bill is now dispelled by virtue of the President’s willingness to sign it after certain changes were made in Conference between the House and Senate. Those changes were almost entirely about removing the parts of the bill that constrained his power, and had nothing to do with improving the bill from a civil liberties perspective. Once the sole concern of the White House was addressed — eliminating limits on the President’s power — they were happy to sign the bill even though (rather: because) none of the civil liberties assaults were fixed. As Mother Jones‘ Adam Serwer explained:

This morning I wrote that by making the mandatory military detention provisions mandatory in name only, the Senate had offered the administration an opportunity to see how seriously it takes its own rhetoric on civil liberties. The administration had said that the military detention provisions of an earlier version of the NDAA were “inconsistent with the fundamental American principle that our military does not patrol our streets.”

The revised NDAA is still inconsistent with that fundamental American principle. But the administration has decided that fundamental American principles aren’t actually worth vetoing the bill over. 

That’s because, as Serwer explained in a separate post, Congress — in response to the veto threat — made changes “addressing the security concerns, but not the ones related to civil liberties and the rule of law” (by “security concerns,” the White House means: don’t restrict what the President can do). That the White House cared only about the former (presidential discretion), and not at all about the letter (civil liberties), is proven by its willingness to sign the bill when only objections to the former have been addressed. For more proof on this point — and the perfect encapsulation of it — see this comment here.

Third, the most persistent and propagandistic set of myths about President Obama on detention issues is that he tried to end indefinite detention by closing Guantanamo, but was blocked by Congress from doing so. It is true that Congress blocked the closing of Guantanamo, and again in this bill, Congress is imposing virtually insurmountable restrictions on the transfer of detainees out of that camp, including for detainees who have long ago been cleared for release (restrictions that Obama is now going to sign into law). But — and this is not a hard point to understand — while Obama intended to close Guantanamo, he always planned — long before Congress acted — to preserve Guantanamo’s core injustice: indefinite detention.

I need to say that again: long before, and fully independent of, anything Congress did, President Obama made clear that he was going to preserve the indefinite detention system at Guantanamo even once he closed the camp. That’s what makes the apologias over Obama and GITMO so misleading: the controversy over Guantanamo was not that about its locale — that it was based in the Caribbean Sea — so that simply closing it and then  re-locating it to a different venue would address the problem. The controversy over Guantanamo was that it was a prison camp where people were put in cages indefinitely, for decades or life, without being charged with any crime. And that policy is one that President Obama whole-heartedly embraced from the start.

Totally prior to and independent of anything Congress did, President Obama fully embraced indefinite detention as his own policy. He is a proponent — not an opponent — of indefinite detention. Just review the facts — the indisputable facts — if you have any doubt about that or if you know anyone who does:

New York Times, May 23, 2009:

New York Times, January 22, 2010:

New York Times, February 21, 2009:

ACLU, December 15, 2009:

This is why even some progressive Senators such as Russ Feingold and Bernie Sanders ultimately voted to deny funding to the closing of Guantanamo: not because they favored GITMO, but because they wanted first to see Obama’s plan for what would replace it, because they did not want to allocate funds to a plan that would simply re-locate GITMO and its defining injustice — indefinite detention — onto U.S. soil.

Can any rational person review these events and try to claim that Obama is some sort of opponent of indefinite detention? He is one of American history’s most aggressive defenders of that power. As Human Rights Watch put it: “President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law.” There is no partisan loyalty or leader-reverent propaganda strong enough to obscure that fact.

* * * * *

Thank you very much to everyone who participated in last week’s blog fund-raiser. As much as the donations themselves, the expressions of reader support are truly gratifying, and galvanizing. It is much appreciated. I will be sending out thank you emails over the next few weeks but wanted to thank everyone here who contributed.

* * * * *

I have an Op-Ed in the print edition of The Guardian today on Bradley Manning, who — after 17 months of harsh imprisonment — will finally see the inside of a courtroom when the preliminary stage of his military trial commences tomorrow; that Op-Ed can be read here.

* * * * *

Here is the segment I did last night with Cenk Uygur on his new Current TV program; he started off the segment with quite a rant (understandably so), so our discussion begins at roughly the 7:00 mark, though the video of Sen. Levin explaining the White House’s demands for domestic detention power is at roughly the 2:30 mark.

 

UPDATE: On the three myths being spread about this bill by defenders of the bill and/or the President: see here.

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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