The White House on Wednesday backed away from a threat of a veto by President Obama of a massive defense spending bill over provisions requiring military custody of terrorism suspects caught in the United States as Congress moved to pass the legislation.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Mr. Obama and his advisers were able to get authors of the bill “to make several important changes” so the legislation “does not challenge or constrain the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people.”
The House passed the bill Wednesday night 283-136. The Senate is expected to vote Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told the Senate Judiciary Committee he was concerned about the legislation’s effect on the bureau’s ability to investigate terrorism, saying that while the bill had been modified for the better, it “lacks clarity as to what happens at the time of arrest.”
“What happens if we had a case in Lackawanna, New York, and an arrest has to be made there and there’s no military within several hundred miles,” Mr. Mueller said. “What happens if we have one - a case that we’re investigating on three individuals, two of whom are American citizens and would not go to military custody and the third is not an American citizen and could go to military custody?”
The bipartisan legislation, which authorizes $662 billion in Defense Department spending, requires the military to take custody of suspected terrorists who are part of al Qaeda or its affiliates and who have been caught plotting or committing attacks against the United States. It exempts U.S. citizens.
Mr. Mueller said it is “tremendously important” at the time of arrest that investigators make the right decisions, particularly in addressing “persons whom you hope to cooperate; not just interrogate, but to cooperate and turn around on others.” He said it is good the legislation now talks about not interrupting interrogations but pointed out that “gaining cooperation is something different than getting - than continuing an interrogation.”
Earlier this week, Senate and House negotiators made some changes to the legislation to head off a possible veto, including allowing the president to waive the provision based on national security.
“While we remain concerned about the uncertainty that this law will create for our counterterrorism professionals, the most recent changes give the president additional discretion in determining how the law will be implemented, consistent with our values and the rule of law, which are at the heart of our country’s strength,” said Mr. Carney.
He said if the administration finds in implementing the legislation that “it will negatively impact our counterterrorism professionals and undercut our commitment to the rule of law,” it expects the authors to work to quickly to address the problems.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, told Mr. Mueller he was “absolutely convinced that the right policy is to presume the combatants against the United States will be held in military custody. But I absolutely believe the FBI should participate in those investigations.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said she opposed the provision because it took away the administration’s “flexibility” to decide whether a case should be handled by the military or federal prosecutors.