WASHINGTON — The polarized US Senate on Tuesday beat back an attempt to set aside proposed rules on detention of terrorism suspects, defying a White House veto threat and criticisms from the FBI and the Pentagon.
By a 37-61 margin, senators defeated an attempt to strip the proposed regulations from a vast annual spending bill that has yet to pass but is seen as a sure thing because it affects US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Democratic Senator Mark Udall’s amendment would have replaced the rules with a call for US military and intelligence officials to study the plan and offer their own blueprint for how to interrogate and detain alleged extremists.
The proposed rules, which were likely to face challenges from other senators, are part of a $662 billion Defense Authorization bill that President Barack Obama has vowed to veto over the detainee provisions.
The controversial measures affirm Obama’s right to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely, including US citizens, and calls for al-Qaeda fighters who plot or carry out attacks on US targets to be held in military custody.
But they allow Obama to decide whether a detainee fits that definition, and permit the government to hold suspected al-Qaeda fighters in civilian custody after formally declaring that to be in the US national security interest.
During an often testy debate, Udall noted that US civilian courts have convicted 300 suspected terrorists since the September 11, 2001 attacks, with many expected to die in prison, and urged: “Let’s not fix what isn’t broken.”
He also expressed worries that tough new standards for transferring detainees to other countries — notably a requirement that top US officials formally declare them no longer a threat — could hamper the US exit from Afghanistan.
The proposed rules explicitly say that the military detention requirement does not apply to US citizens, but supporters of the legislation stressed that American Al-Qaeda members may be held indefinitely without trial.
“The Supreme Court has recently ruled the following, that there is no bar to this nation’s holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant. This is the Supreme Court speaking,” said Democratic Senator Carl Levin.
Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the proposed rules would not short-circuit the administration’s use of civilian trials for suspected terrorists and denied they would cripple civil liberties.
“We could see American citizens being sent to Guantanamo Bay,” countered Republican Senator Rand Paul, who warned the new provisions would not have prevented the failures that led to the September 11th attacks.
“These are not failures of laws. They are not failures of procedures. They are failures of imperfect men and women in bloated bureaucracies. No amount of liberty sacrificed on the altar of the state will ever change that,” he said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who voted against Udall’s amendment, accused Obama of overrelying on the FBI and other civilian institutions in fighting suspected terrorists.
“America is part of the battlefield. We firmly believe the war is coming back home,” he said. “We’re fighting a war, not a crime.”
The White House two weeks ago warned that Obama would veto the bill, and the FBI, the Pentagon, and the Director of National Intelligence have all criticized the legislation.
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