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Senate panel presses ahead with defense bill

By Donna Cassata
Associated Press / November 15, 2011

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WASHINGTON—Setting up a showdown with the White House, a Senate panel on Tuesday pushed ahead with a sweeping defense bill that would require military custody of terrorist suspects and limit the government's authority to transfer detainees.

The Democratic-led Armed Services Committee approved the revised legislation over objections from Obama administration officials and opposition from several senior Democratic senators who argue the bill would tie the president's hands in the war on terror.

Weeks of negotiations between the administration and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the panel's top Republican, produced some changes in the bill's provisions on handling detainees, but they weren't sufficient to overcome White House concerns.

"Issues which have been raised I believe have been addressed," said Levin, who indicated that the Senate could consider the measure this week. He insisted that "there are all kinds of misconceptions" about the detainee provisions.

The overall bill totals $663 billion and would authorize spending for military personnel, weapons systems and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. The committee had approved the bill in June but met behind closed doors Tuesday to cut about $21 billion to fulfill new budget requirements.

Dividing the Democrats and drawing criticism from the administration is a provision that would require military custody of a suspect determined to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in the planning or an attack on the United States. The administration argues that such a step would hamper efforts by the FBI or other law enforcement to elicit intelligence from terror suspects.

Attorney General Eric Holder said last week that the United States must have the flexibility to prosecute terror suspects in criminal courts. White House counterterror chief John Brennan has argued for a case-by-case approach in prosecuting terrorist suspects. The Pentagon's general counsel, Jeh Johnson, also has said there is a "danger in over-militarizing our approach to al-Qaida and its affiliates."

Levin said the administration agrees with military custody for terror suspects captured outside the United States. "What they won't agree to is people are captured in the United States be so treated and go through the military custody even with a (national security) waiver."

"If there's an al-Qaida guy here attacking the military base. Some guy walks up to a military base and blows himself up ... can that person be detained by the military at that fort?" Levin told reporters. "Under the administration language you could not mandate that. We say, yeah, you can mandate that, and if you don't like it, administration, you can waive that."

Several Democrats on the committee tried to eliminate the provision and others on detainees from the bill but failed on a voice vote.

Among those opposed to the provisions are Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the head of the Judiciary Committee, and Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Armed Services panel.

Udall said he had serious concerns about the provisions and their impact on U.S. citizens and counterterrorism operations.

"I do not believe that the consequences of the provisions have been adequately considered, and it should be noted that the Department of Defense strongly objects to their inclusion," he said in a statement in which he indicated he would offer amendments to change them.

In an Oct. 27 letter to Senate leaders, Levin and McCain, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., criticized the military custody provision.

"Americans that have dedicated themselves to fighting terrorism have a hard enough job as it is without being handcuffed by new legal hurdles," Baucus wrote. "An effort by Congress to tie their hands ... would be a grave mistake."

The bill contains the original provision limiting the transfer of terror suspects from the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. The committee agreed to a one-year limit instead of a permanent restriction.

On the military custody provision, the committee added several clarifications that the requirement would not interrupt ongoing surveillance, intelligence gathering or interrogation.