Sens. Levin, McCain fire back at the White House over detainee veto threat

Two prominent senators used a Washington Post op-ed to fire back at a White House threat to veto Pentagon policy legislation over terrorist detainee language the Obama administration opposes.

“The United States has struggled to craft laws and procedures to prosecute the unprecedented kind of war that came to our shores on Sept. 11, 2001,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) wrote in Monday’s issue.

“The courts, Congress and two presidential administrations have gradually, often ad hoc, developed a system that seeks to uphold our values and honors our Constitution while protecting national security,” the duo wrote.

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The Senate panel’s legislation “builds on that work,” the senators contended, writing that its detainee language is “a careful, bipartisan effort to provide the executive branch the clear authority, tools and flexibility of action it needs to defend us against the threat posed by al Qaeda.”

Levin and McCain see a “basic misunderstanding” among lawmakers and administration officials about just what their bill would and would not do.

The flap has held up the defense authorization bill, typically considered a must-pass measure, for months.


The Senate took up the Pentagon bill on the floor before its Thanksgiving recess, but debate over the detainee language — and amendments to it — bogged down the floor process.

The White House opposes mandatory military custody for terror suspects, arguing it should be able to transfer some to the civilian court system. The administration also opposes an indefinite ban on transferring Guantánamo detainees.

Levin and McCain used most of their op-ed to dispel the “misunderstanding” they see.

“The most controversial point involves the circumstances under which a terrorist detainee should be held in military, rather than civilian, custody,” they wrote. “The bill provides that a narrowly defined group of people — al Qaeda terrorists who participate in planning or conducting attacks against us — be held in military custody.”

The duo repeated their contention that the legislation includes a “waiver” that would allow administrations to “hold these al Qaeda detainees in civilian custody if it determines that would best serve national security.”

The senators also contend “the legislation expands the authority under which detainees can be held in military custody,” saying it would codify “detention authority that has been adopted by two administrations and upheld in the courts.”

They also claim the measure “does not tie the administration’s hands” in determining how to handle detainees, stressing their legislation keeps in place the power of the executive branch to decide between sending detainees to civilian or military trials.

On the administration’s Guantanamo concerns, Levin and McCain contend their bill places no new restrictions on transferring terrorism suspects held there to the U.S. or other nations.

“It does maintain some existing limits but gives the administration greater flexibility in waiving them,” the duo wrote. “The bill doesn't prohibit the transfer of detainees to the United States, and the limits it imposes on transfers to third countries are less restrictive than is past legislation by making the certification requirements for such transfers easier to use.”

In urging the administration and lawmakers to better understand the legislation’s provisions, the duo says it would be “tragic” if funding for things like troops’ pay hikes, medical care and equipment needs are held up due to the detainee flap.