On Thursday President Obama signed into law the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a sweeping defense policy bill, which includes some improvements in terms of civil liberties and human rights on its previous two iterations. However, a number of provisions -- as in the 2012 and 2013 NDAAs -- should keep civil libertarians concerned.
As a notable improvement, NDAA 2014 includes a provision that Obama called a "welcome step" toward fulfilling his longtime promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. The bill relaxes regulations that have held up the transfer of detainees out of the detention center.
The defense act also includes provisions aimed at intervening in the epidemic of sexual assault in the U.S. military. But, as the Washington Post noted, "it stops short of the broad reforms that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and other advocates have been calling for."
While legislative movement on Gitmo's closure is necessary, it is insufficient. As Amnesty International USA's director Zeke Johnson commented, "[the president] should move forward with foreign transfers immediately and lobby Congress hard to end the ban on transfers to the U.S. mainland. Guantanamo must be closed by ensuring that each detainee is either fairly tried in U.S. federal court or released to a country that will respect his human rights.”
Meanwhile the troubling NDAA provision first signed into law in 2012, which permits the military to detain individuals indefinitely without trial, remains on the books for 2014. Efforts to quash or reform the provision (especially with regard to the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens) have failed and have been fiercely fought by the administration. Most notably, a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including journalist Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg against the provision has been aggressively fought at every turn by the president's attorneys. The plaintiffs argue that the NDAA provision constitutes a significant expansion of the laws regarding indefinite detention already established by Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).
And we can all be concerned when it is Tea Party blowhard Sen. Ted Cruz who best expresses civil liberties concerns on an issue. Cruz voted against the 2014 NDAA, stating, "I voted against the National Defense Authorization Act. I am deeply concerned that Congress still has not prohibited President Obama’s ability to indefinitely detain U.S. citizens arrested on American soil without trial or due process... Although this legislation does contain several positive provisions that I support, it does not ensure our most basic rights as American citizens are protected."
The 2014 NDAA also includes a new provision that appears to bolster the national security surveillance state. Section 1071(a) authorizes the Defense Department to “establish a center to be known as the ‘Conflict Records Research Center’.” Using the dangerously broad terms now typical of national security policy parlance, the Conflict Records Research Center enables the DoD to compile a “digital research database including translations and to facilitate research and analysis of records captured from countries, organizations, and individuals, now or once hostile to the United States.” Who gets to be a surveillance target -- the specific remit of "now or once hostile" -- is troublingly ill-defined and unrestricted.