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Guantánamo for US citizens? Senate bill raises questions

The National Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate this week could allow the US military to detain American citizens indefinitely. Civil libertarians are alarmed, and President Obama says he might veto it.

By Staff writer / December 3, 2011

Senator and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin and ranking Republican committee member Sen. John McCain. They support a National Defense Authorization bill which critics say could lead to indefinite military detention of US citizens.

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Legislation passed by the Senate this week and headed for the House – and a possible presidential veto – could allow the US military to detain American citizens indefinitely.

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The National Defense Authorization Act covering $662 billion in defense spending for the next fiscal year includes a provision requiring military custody of a terror suspect believed to be a member of Al Qaeda or its affiliates and involved in attacks on the United States.  
 
 A last minute amendment allows the president to waive the authority based on national security and to hold a terror suspect in civilian rather than military custody. But the bill would deny US citizens suspected of being terrorists the right to trial, subjecting them to indefinite detention, and civil libertarians say the amendment essentially is meaningless.

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“This bill puts military detention authority on steroids and makes it permanent,” Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. “If it becomes law, American citizens and others are at real risk of being locked away by the military without charge or trial.”

Libertarians and conservatives wary of big government are speaking out against the bill as well.

"If the president thinks you are a terrorist, let him present charges and evidence to a judge,” Libertarian Party Chair Mark Hinkle said in a statement Friday. “He has no authority to lock you up without any judicial review, just because he and Congress believe he should have unlimited power. That is the kind of power held by tyrants in totalitarian regimes. It has no place in the United States.”

Echoing arguments against federal government power made by his father, presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky spoke forcefully against the measure: “We are talking about people who are merely suspected of a crime, and we are talking about American citizens. If these provisions pass, we could see American citizens being sent to Guantánamo Bay.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California likens the measure to former president Franklin Roosevelt’s ordering the incarceration of US citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.

"We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge, prosecution, and conviction,” she said during Senate debate.

"This constant push that everything has to be militarized – I don't think that creates a good country," Feinstein argued. "Because we have values. And due process of law is one of those values. And so I object, I object to holding American citizens without trial. I do not believe that makes us more safe."

Making the country more safe from possible attack is exactly the point, counters Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, a former military lawyer. What the measure does, Graham said, is “basically say in law for the first time that the homeland is part of the battlefield.”

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