White House backs down from threat to veto Defense bill over detainee language

The White House backed down from its veto threat of the defense authorization bill Wednesday, saying that the bill’s updated language would not constrain the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts.

While the White House acknowledged it still has some concerns, press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama’s advisers wouldn’t recommend a veto, a threat that had been hanging over the Pentagon policy bill for the past month. 

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With the veto threat dropped, the $662 billion defense bill is likely to become law this week. The House passed the bill Wednesday, and at press time, the Senate was expected to vote on it no later than Thursday. 

The administration was set on a collision course with Congress this past month over the defense bill, which sets Pentagon policy and is generally considered must-pass legislation. It has passed for 50 years straight. 

The White House faced bipartisan opposition in Congress. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) pushed the Senate bill through over the administration’s objections. 

Congress could have dealt Obama an embarrassing defeat if he had vetoed the bill, which had widespread support, potentially enough to override the president.

The administration and Senate Armed Services Committee leaders had been negotiating for several months on the detainee language and other issues, but the negotiations stalled in November, and Levin and McCain moved forward with the bill over White House objections.

Two days after it passed out of committee last month, the White House issued its veto threat. 

Attempts to change the detainee provisions from Senate Democrats, including Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), were mostly unsuccessful. Feinstein had an amendment added at the eleventh hour that stated the bill did not change existing law on the detention of U.S. citizens.

The Obama administration lobbied for changes to the bill both publicly and privately, in a campaign that included Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, FBI Director Robert Mueller and the president himself. 

The administration won some changes in conference committee, which wrapped up Monday, including the addition of a clause stating that FBI and local law enforcement counterterrorism activities would not be altered by the law. 

“As a result of these changes, we have concluded that the language does not challenge or constrain the president’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the American people, and the president’s senior advisors will not recommend a veto,” Carney said in a statement. 

The dispute between Congress and the White House centered on the administration’s objections to provisions mandating the military detention of terror suspects. 

The White House said mandatory military detention would have tied the hands of law enforcement officials, while the bill’s supporters argued the bill contained sufficient waivers.

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Carney said Wednesday the White House remains concerned that the legislation will create uncertainty for counterterrorism officials. But enough changes were made in conference committee to satisfy White House demands, wrapping up what turned into a months-long fight over terror detainees. 

The administration cited several revisions to the final bill’s detainee sections in its decision to drop the veto threat. 

The bill deleted the word “requirement” from the section on the military detention of terror suspects, which was among the most contentious parts of the bill. 

The national security waiver allowing the executive branch to move terror suspects from military to civilian courts was placed in the president’s hands rather than the Defense secretary’s, a change Levin said Obama had asked for. 

The conference bill was based on the Senate language, which was not as harsh as the House bill when it came to trying terror suspects in civilian courts. 

The administration called the provision in the bill that establishes the authority for military detentions unnecessary because the executive branch already was given this authority following Sept. 11.

Carney’s statement said if the administration finds parts of the law “negatively impact our counterterrorism professionals and undercut our commitment to the rule of law,” it expects the bill’s authors will correct those problems. 


— This story was updated at 8:37 p.m.