House Votes to Affirm Indefinite Military Detention of Americans Without Charge or Trial
Two days after a federal judge ruled a law allowing people, including Americans, to be detained indefinitely by the military without charge or trial to be unconstitutional, the House of Representatives voted on Friday to allow such detentions to continue.
The bipartisan amendment sponsored by Reps. Adam Smith (D-WA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) was defeated by a vote of 238-182, despite strong support from both sides of the aisle. Supporters of the measure had tried to argue that giving the president sweeping powers to order the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists, even if they are Americans, was granting excessive power to the executive branch. They pointed to the fact that more than 400 terrorists have been successfully tried and convicted in civilian courts, with dozens of terror plots foiled, as evidence that measure was unnecessary.
“The president right now has the authority to go outside the normal due process, constitutionally protected rights that are part of a court trial, and lock somebody up indefinitely or place them in military custody here in the U.S.,” Smith, the ranking member of the House Armed Services committee, said during floor debate. “That is an extraordinary amount of power to give the executive branch over individual freedom and liberty. I don’t think it is necessary to keep us safe.”
Rep. Morgan Griffith, a freshman Tea Party Republican from Virginia, also spoke out in favor of the amendment.
“Jefferson was not willing to allow us to rest on the rights of inference, nor should we in this Congress also be willing to rest on the rights of inference, and particularly when you have language such as this coming out of the court yesterday evening,” he said, referring to Thomas Jefferson’s 1787 letter to James Madison arguing in favor of the not-yet-adopted Bill of Rights. “As long as I serve in Congress, I will stand up for liberty and make sure that no citizen of the United States has their due process removed.”
Rep. Mac Thornbury (R-TX) voted with the majority in upholding indefinite detention.
“What that means is, as soon as a member of al Qaeda sets foot on American soil, the first thing he hears after ‘You are under arrest’ is, ‘You have the right to remain silent, you have a right to be provided an attorney and if you can’t afford one, one will be provided for you,” he said.
“There may be differences about how we treat illegal aliens who come here as members of al Qaeda to conduct terrorist attacks, but I think the vast majority of people in this body and around the country do not think telling them they have the right to remain silent as the first thing they hear is a wise thing,” he added.
Rep. Smith slammed the notion that his amendment would aid terrorists.
“Hands down, the dumbest set of arguments I have heard … [is] that somehow taking away this extraordinary power from the president rewards terrorists,” he said. “I’d like to remind everybody, in particular, Tea Party conservatives, that just because the government arrests you doesn’t mean you’re guilty. Under their thinking, basically once the government says you’re a terrorist, you’re a terrorist. And we shouldn’t have a trial about it.”
“I cannot believe that Tea Party conservatives want to create a situation where when the government says you’re guilty of a crime, that’s it, no trial,” he added. “Let’s just lock you up and forget about it.”
But that’s exactly what the government is permitted to do under the provision, tucked away deep inside the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. President Barack Obama, despite a threat to veto the ominous measure, signed it into law with no fanfare on New Year’s Eve when hardly anyone was paying any attention.
On Wednesday, US federal district judge Katherine Forrest ruled the indefinite detention provision unconstitutional, citing its “chilling impact on First Amendment rights.”
The government has not yet announced whether it will appeal her ruling.
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