Detention bill cleared, but language no clearer

Opposing sides backed measure

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Mrs. Feinstein’s amendment passed by a vote of 67-29, and then the underlying defense policy bill passed by a 98-0 vote.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, arguing in particular against restrictions that lawmakers placed on the administration’s ability to transfer detainees from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. or other countries.

The same language has been in previous years’ bills, and the White House had let them go — but this time it is signaling a bigger fight.

“Since these restrictions have been on the books, they have limited the executive’s ability to manage military operations in an ongoing armed conflict, harmed the country’s diplomatic relations with allies and counterterrorism partners, and provided no benefit whatsoever to our national security,” the White House Office of Management and Budget said in its policy statement.

One congressional aide said Mr. Obama also presided over a fierce internal battle on indefinite detention last year when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act, with Cabinet officials coming down on both sides of the debate.

Before it reaches Mr. Obama this year, the defense bill must survive a House-Senate conference, during which both sides generally agree on the Guantanamo policy but differ on the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.

The House bill, written by Republicans, does not limit the military’s authority. An amendment written by Mr. Smith and Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, that would have clearly excluded the U.S. from indefinite military detention, failed in the House debate.

As the ranking Democrat on the House committee, Mr. Smith will have a seat at the negotiating table and get a chance to re-argue his case, but he likely will have to battle Mr. Levin, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate committee.

Adding to the confusion is civil-liberties groups that said that while they support Mrs. Feinstein, they wish she had gone further to include all people apprehended in the U.S., not only citizens and legal permanent residents.

“The Fifth Amendment and all the important due process rights are always provided to persons, and not just to citizens or green card holders,” said Christopher Anders, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s been this long principle that basic due process rights are available to everyone in the United States.”

But Mrs. Feinstein said she was “dismayed” at the criticism, and said she couldn’t have gotten her amendment through the Senate if she’d included all people, not just citizens or legal immigrants.

She said she hopes the Senate will insist on its stance.

“Not to do this at this stage to me is a total collapse, which would be unacceptable,” she said.

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