- The Washington Times - Monday, December 12, 2011

House and Senate negotiators struck a deal Monday that gives the military first crack at holding suspected al Qaeda terrorists caught in the U.S., setting up a final showdown with President Obama who had said he might veto the bill if he thought it constrained his authority.

The negotiators — the top Democrat and Republican on the House and Senate Armed Services committees — said they weren’t intending to change existing criminal law enforcement, but said they felt strongly any al Qaeda caught plotting against the U.S. should be held by the military, even if they are captured on U.S. soil.

A decade after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. and the vote in Congress that authorized the war on terror, the negotiators said it was time to make certain the military was first in line to go after foreign terrorists.

“It is long past time to provide a statutory basis relating to military detention under that authorization,” said Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate committee.

Mandatory military detention only applies to those who are part of al Qaeda or its affiliates and who have been caught actually planning or carrying out an attack.

The White House had argued making military custody the default amounted to micromanaging the war on terror, and said it could reimpose some of the walls between agencies that were blamed for intelligence failures leading up to Sept. 11.

A spokesman on Monday said they didn’t have a comment on the agreement.

But Mr. Obama’s initial veto threat did leave him some wiggle room, saying that a veto would ensue if the president deemed the bill “challenges or constrains the president’s critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation.”

The detainee agreement came on the defense policy bill, which is considered one of the few must-pass pieces of legislation Congress takes up every year.

Lawmakers will try to pass it this week.

The military custody provisions passed both the House and Senate with strong bipartisan support earlier this year, easing the way for negotiators to keep them in the final agreement.

Mr. Levin said he doesn’t know if there are the votes to override a veto, should Mr. Obama go that route.

But he said he talked with the president within the last week and told him they were including assurances in the agreement that might make him more comfortable.

Among those assurances was language that said the bill isn’t meant to infringe on civilian authorities’ duties - though it doesn’t change the military’s right of custody. The bill does, however, say that the administration can grant custody to civilian authorities if it deems it necessary for national security.

The compromise bill specifically says the military detention provisions don’t apply to U.S. citizens caught on American soil who are thought to be working with al Qaeda.

The bill also extends the existing ban Congress passed last year on transferring or releasing any detainee from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, into the U.S., and it continues to block the administration from building a prison to hold detainees on American soil.

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