White House threatens veto of Defense bill over detainee rules

The White House on Thursday threatened to veto a defense authorization bill over a provision for detaining terrorism suspects, calling it a “legally controversial restriction of the president’s authority.”

   In a statement of administration policy, the Office of Management and Budget said the detainee language in the Senate bill would tie the hands of intelligence and law enforcement officials.

“The administration believes strongly that it would be a mistake for Congress to overrule or limit the tactical flexibility of our nation’s counterterrorism professionals,” OMB stated.

The Senate took up the Pentagon bill on the floor Thursday, after it had been stalled for months as the Obama administration and Congress tussled over the detention of terror suspects.

The White House has opposed mandatory military custody for terror suspects out of a desire to be able to transfer some to the civilian court system. The administration also opposes an indefinite ban on transferring Guantánamo detainees.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) reached an agreement Tuesday for a new bill in response to the administration’s concerns, but the administration said it didn’t go far enough.

The Armed Services Committee deal provides the administration a waiver to move suspects from military custody to federal law enforcement, but the OMB stated that the waiver is an “unnecessary, untested and legally controversial restriction of the president’s authority.”

“The provision would limit the flexibility of our national-security professionals to choose, based on the evidence and the facts and circumstances of each case, which tool for incapacitating dangerous terrorists best serves our national security interests,” OMB stated. “The waiver provision fails to address these concerns.”

The updated bill also made the Guantánamo restrictions effective for one year rather than indefinitely.

Levin defended the way his legislation handles terror detainees, arguing that his committee made many changes at the administration’s request up to the day before the bill was voted out of committee. He said federal law enforcement would not be disrupted, as the administration suggests, because a waiver would be easily obtained.

“There have been misstatements, misimpressions, misinterpretations of the provisions of our bill,” Levin said.

McCain accused the administration of playing politics with its veto threat.

“I can only assume that somehow this has some sort of political implications — and I don’t say that lightly — as most of the actions concerning this whole detainee issue seem to be driven by,” McCain said.

The administration has worked with Levin and the committee for several months on the detainee provisions, but Levin said he would not agree to strike the section that mandated military detention of al Qaeda members, as the White House had requested.

The detainee deal has divided Senate Democrats, pitting committee chairmen against one another.

After the Armed Services panel voted 26-0 to move the updated bill out of committee Tuesday, the legislation was quickly rebuked by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Panetta wrote a letter Tuesday to Levin outlining the administration’s concerns with the new detainee language, though a Pentagon spokesman said Wednesday that the secretary hadn’t recommended a veto at that point.

Dozens of amendments were proposed Thursday, including one from Armed Services Committee member Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would strike the detainee provisions. 

Feinstein said she would also offer amendments to address administration concerns, admitting that she was still undecided how she would ultimately vote on the entire bill.

Despite the quarreling over detainees, the administration did support other parts of the Senate’s Pentagon bill, including the decision to prohibit funds for the development of an alternate Joint Strike Fighter engine.

Committee member Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted “reason will prevail” and the bill will pass the Senate handily.

This post was updated at 7:33 p.m.