Senate clarifies detainee language

There is some rare good news out of Washington, even rarer when it deals with civil liberties. In a vote of 99 to 1, the United States Senate adopted new detainee language in the defense authorization bill:

The U.S. Senate on Thursday night struck a bipartisan deal that modified controversial language in a major defense policy bill which had drawn strong opposition from critics in both parties, who charged it would allow the indefinite detention of American citizens by the military.

The 99-1 vote came after several days of heated debate on the Senate floor over whether this defense bill really changed how U.S. citizens accused of supporting terrorists would be treated, or if critics were right that U.S. citizens could be held by the military indefinitely without the filing of formal charges.

Compromise language developed in part by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was ultimately approved, which read as follows:

“Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens or lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.”

The compromise won almost unanimous support, as Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) said he would fight to protect that language in upcoming House-Senate negotiations; it was unclear whether the language would be accepted by the White House, which has threatened to veto the entire defense bill.

Earlier, the Senate had twice defeated efforts to water down the detainee provisions in this bill, as a majority of Republicans joined with a dozen Democrats to keep detainee language that some Senators said allowed for indefinite military detention of civilians, a charge that leading Republicans like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) bitterly disputed.

There two other efforts before this amendment passed to protect civil liberties, but they were defeated. We’re not out of the woods yet, the language could come out during the House/Senate conference, which will finalize the details of the final bill. Hopefully this protection, which is the best we’re going to get, stay in tact.

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