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White House Threatens Veto Of Indefinite Detention Bill

by MIchael McAuliff

WASHINGTON -- Accusing the Senate of "political micromanagement" of national security, the White House Friday stood by its threat to veto a defense bill over controversial military detention provisions.

The National Defense Authorization Act passed Thursday by the Senate contains a section that spells out the military's power to detain Americans indefinitely without trial and mandates military detention for some terrorism suspects.

The White House warned last month that senior advisers would recommend a veto, saying the detainee provisions could restrict the ability of law enforcement to combat terrorism and "make the job of preventing terrorist attacks more difficult."

It also contended that rather than clarifying the rules, the bill was adding uncertainty to the difficult legal landscape around detentions. Civil libertarians and many senators opposed to the detainee section charged that the bill was trampling Americans' basic rights to due process.

The Senate sought to soothe the objections Thursday night by adding an amendment that says the provision will not affect current law on detainees.

It won almost unanimous passage in the Senate, but the compromise was not sufficient for the White House.

"Republican and Democratic administrations ... have said that the language in this bill would jeopardize our national security by restricting flexibility in our fight against al Qaeda," spokesman Jay Carney said in his daily briefing Friday. "By ignoring these nonpartisan recommendations -- including the recommendations of the secretary of defense, the director of the FBI, the director of national Intelligence and the attorney general -- the Senate has unfortunately engaged in a little political micromanagement at the expense of sensible national security policies.

"So our position has not changed," Carney added. "Any bill that challenges or constrains the president's critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation would prompt his senior advisers to recommend a veto."

A former Bush administration official echoed Carney.

"I sympathize with what the sponsors are trying to do," said John Bellinger, a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter who served as legal adviser to the State Department and the National Security Council. "But these provisions go far beyond anything the Bush administration either did, or would have tolerated."

Bellinger was referring specifically to the two sections in the bill that mandate military detention and heavily restrict where and how terrorism detainees must be imprisoned, as well as rules for moving them.

"Those are the kind of micromanagement of the president's military and law enforcement authority that the Bush administration opposed adamantly ... particularly when it came to prosecuting the war with al Qaeda," Bellinger said.

Bellinger also warned that the detainee provision could threaten the ability of U.S. officials to get cooperation from allies who are likely to object to indefinite detentions, and could therefore be unwilling to provide information that leads to people being captured.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who managed the bill, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

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