FBI chief: Defense bill 'lacks clarity' about terrorist detentions

The head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation told senators on Wednesday he has significant concerns about the provisions on terrorist detainees in a defense authorization bill.

The legislation, which President Obama has threatened to veto, “lacks clarity” on how authority should be divided between the military and the FBI when a person suspected of being a terrorist is arrested, FBI Director Robert Mueller said.

Mueller’s concerns, offered Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, center on the FBI’s access to a prisoner’s interrogation.

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Mueller said he worried that the existing language — which would grant the military custody rights over people who are arrested and suspected of being al Qaeda members or associates — would be subject to interpretation in certain scenarios. 

“It is tremendously important at the time of arrest that you make the right decisions in terms of addressing the person, particularly persons whom you hope to cooperate, not just to interrogate but to cooperate and turn around on others,” Mueller said.

“My continuing concern is that that uncertainty will be there until it is resolved in some way by statute or otherwise.”

The White House has yet to say whether it will follow through on its threat to veto the defense bill. The conference report on the bill was released Monday evening and is headed for passage in the House and Senate, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.  

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at Wednesday’s hearing that newly inserted language in the bill would treat the prisoners as military detainees immediately but would give the president the power to designate whether the FBI or military took the permanent lead on investigating the suspect.  

“Presumptively treat them as a military detainee and then to have memorandums of understanding or cross-designations that would allow full participation,” Sessions said.  

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Sessions said the new language states that: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the FBI with regard to a covered person, regardless of whether such covered person is held in military custody.”

And though Mueller conceded that the new bill was closer to meeting his hopes, it did not alleviate worries about how a future administration might handle detainees.

“What I am concerned about, however, is long term as well,” Mueller said. “This statute that gives the military an inroad to making detentions in the United States may be applicable and work well with the persons you have now. But five years, 10 years down the road, what could this mean?"