WASHINGTON — The White House on Wednesday abandoned its threat that President Barack Obama would veto a defense bill over provisions on how to handle suspected terrorists as Congress raced to finish the legislation.
Press secretary Jay Carney said last-minute changes that Obama and his national security team sought produced legislation that “does not challenge the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the American people.”
Based on the modifications, “the president’s senior advisors will not recommend a veto,” the White House said.
The statement came just moments after the House wrapped up debate on the $662 billion bill that would authorize money for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and national security programs in the Energy Department in the budget year that began Oct. 1.
The House was expected to vote for the measure later Wednesday. The Senate planned to wrap up the bill in the evening and send it to Obama.
The White House had threatened a veto over the detainee provisions. Specifically, the bill would require that the military take custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al Qaeda or its affiliates and who is involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States. There is an exemption for U.S. citizens.
House and Senate negotiators announced late Monday that they had modified that provision. They added language that says nothing in the bill will affect “existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the FBI or any other domestic law enforcement agency” with regard to a captured suspect, “regardless of whether such … person is held in military custody.”
The bill also says the president can 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,” Carney said.
Uncertainty was a major concern of FBI Director Robert Mueller who expressed serious reservations about the detainee provisions.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mueller said a coordinated effort by the military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement has weakened al Qaeda and captured or killed many of its leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. He suggested that the divisive provision in the bipartisan defense bill would deny that flexibility and prove impractical.
“The statute lacks clarity with regard to what happens at the time of arrest. It lacks clarity with regard to 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,” Mueller said. “What happens if we have … 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 legislation also would deny suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation’s borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention.
The escalating fight over whether to treat suspects as prisoners of war or criminals has divided Democrats and Republicans, the Pentagon and Congress.
The administration insists that the military, law enforcement and intelligence officials need flexibility in the campaign against terrorism. Obama points to his administration’s successes in killing bin Laden and radical Islamic cleric al-Awlaki. Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, and that Obama has failed to produce a consistent policy on handling terror suspects.
In a reflection of the uncertainty, House members offered differing interpretations of the military custody and indefinite detention provisions and what would happen if the bill became law.
“The provisions do not extend new authority to detain U.S. citizens,” House Armed Services Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, said during debate.
But Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said the bill would turn “the military into a domestic police force.”
Highlighting a period of austerity and a winding down of decade-old conflicts, the bill is $27 billion less than Obama requested and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon.
Frustrated with delays and cost overruns with the troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft program, lawmakers planned to require the contractor, Lockheed Martin, to cover the expense for any extra costs on the next batch and future purchases of the aircraft. The Pentagon envisions buying 2,442 planes for the Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy, but the price could make it the most expensive program in military history — $1 trillion.
The legislation freezes $700 million for Pakistan until the defense secretary provides Congress a report on how Islamabad is countering the threat of improvised explosive devices.
It would impose tough new penalties on Iran, targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with the country’s central bank. The president could waive those penalties if he notifies Congress that it’s in the interest of national security.
The bill begins a reduction in defense spending, a reality the Pentagon hasn’t faced in the decade since the Sept. 11 attacks. Pentagon spending has nearly doubled in that period, but the deficit-reduction plan that Obama and congressional Republicans backed this summer sets the Defense Department on a budget-cutting course.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and several other GOP defense hawks pledged to return to Washington next month with a plan to avoid automatic across-the-board cuts to defense required in 2013. The failure of the deficit supercommittee last month means $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years, with half from defense.
Defense hawks said the 10 percent cut would hollow out the Pentagon and devastate U.S. military readiness.
• Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed to this report.
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