McCain hits back at Reid, White House over terrorist detainee provision

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended a terrorist detainee provision in a Pentagon policy bill Thursday, urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to negotiate instead of allowing the simmering dispute to keep the legislation in limbo.

Reid says he will keep the 2012 Defense authorization bill off the Senate floor because it contains a provision inserted by the Senate Armed Services Committee after ample debate that would clear the way for indefinite detentions of suspects aligned with al Qaeda and similar groups. The provision also would make it mandatory that terrorism suspects be held in military custody, while also putting strict restrictions on the transfer of detainees to the civilian court system.

Reid said earlier this week he will not put the DOD authorization measure on the Senate schedule unless that language is changed or removed from the bill.

The White House this week joined Reid in opposing the provision.

“I do not intend to bring this bill to the floor until concerns regarding the bill’s detainee provision are resolved,” Reid wrote in the Oct. 4 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and McCain, ranking member of the panel. “The Obama administration and several of our Senate colleagues have expressed serious concerns about the implications of the detainee provision included in the legislation.”

McCain on Thursday struck back at the criticisms of the detainee language, calling it a bipartisan compromise.

“This compromise was so bipartisan that after extensive debate on many amendments, and a number of votes during mark-up by the committee using the regular order of the Senate, the resulting package of detainee provision was adopted and made part of the bill by an overwhelming vote of 25 to 1,” McCain said Thursday.

In his Monday letter, Reid cited recent comments by John Brennan, White House Deputy national security adviser, about the provision: “Our counterterrorism professionals would be compelled to hold all terrorists in military custody, casting aside our most effective and time-tested tool for bringing suspected terrorists to justice — our federal courts.”

McCain called Brennan’s assessment “simply and completely untrue,” labeling it a “total mischaracterization” of the provision.

McCain also said the provision has a “narrow focus” on al Qaeda members and those of similar groups, saying that approach “is far from Mr. Brennan’s claim that military custody would be required for all terrorists."

“That is simply wrong,” McCain said bluntly. “It grossly distorts the scope of the provision.”

The Arizona Republican also called the administration’s detainee philosophy uneven.

“The inconsistency … is that this administration asserts the right, correctly in my view, to kill a member of al Qaeda or its affiliates through use of military force, but would deny that the same individual should be held in military custody if captured,” McCain said.

“Instead, following Mr. Brennan’s point of view, if we capture an Al Qaeda terrorist in the very act of carrying out an attack on our homeland or U.S. interests elsewhere, we should revert to law enforcement methods and hold that Al Qaeda terrorist under civilian law enforcement standards,” he said.

McCain noted the provision in the SASC’s bill includes a waiver that would allow all terrorism detainees — even al Qaeda operatives — to be transferred to civilian courts under certain circumstances.

He urged Reid to bring the defense policy bill to the floor, and vowed to hold talks with Reid, Levin and the White House on the detainee language.

But McCain made clear he wants the administration to come up with its own plan.

“I believe that the administration must now present to the Senate and the Armed Services Committee its specific concerns,” the Arizona Republican said. “Absent this, I would hope the majority leader would move to this important legislation and let the Senate implement its proscribed duties.”

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