Lawmakers try to ease White House concerns about detainee rules

December 13, 2011

Lawmakers on Monday tried to ease concerns that a major defense bill would require military detention for terrorism suspects held in the United States, changing the measure in hopes of winning approval from the White House.

The provisions were in a $662 billion defense authorization bill that was approved by key lawmakers from both parties on Monday night. The measure also includes Senate provisions on sanctions against Iran that the administration has argued could backfire. The House-Senate conference committee also agreed to freeze $700 million in U.S. aid to Pakistan over its failure to fight the use of improvised explosive devices against U.S.-led coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers told reporters after a conference committee approved the measure that they had met with administration officials, including FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and that they felt they had addressed most of the administration’s concerns on detainees.

“I very strongly believe it should satisfy the administration,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said at a news conference with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.); Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel; and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate committee.

Members of the conference committee said they expect a full House vote as early as Wednesday, followed by a Senate vote on Thursday.

The question is whether those changes will pass muster with the White House, which last month said that it would veto “any bill that challenges or constrains the president’s critical authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the nation.”

Among the concerns expressed by the administration was that the language on detainees would require that the military for the first time take custody of U.S. citizens on American soil. The White House was not satisfied with a provision that would give the secretary of defense the authority to waive the requirement. Spokesmen for the White House and the Justice Department did not immediately comment on the changes Monday night.

According to information from Levin’s office, the conference report contains “additional assurances” reinforcing the assertion that the language on detainees would not interfere with civilian interrogations and law enforcement.

Those changes include language stating that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect the existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or any other domestic law enforcement agency with regard to a covered person.”

Lawmakers also altered the title of the section on detainees from “Requirement for Military Custody” to “Military Custody for Foreign al-Qaeda Terrorists.”

The waiver provision has been changed so that it grants such authority to the president and not the secretary of defense.

Levin argued that the changes in the detainee language “make it 100 percent clear that there is no interference with the FBI or other civilian law enforcement.” He also said that lawmakers “are not changing existing law on who is or who is not an enemy combatant.”

On Iran, the measure would apply sanctions against that country’s central bank to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

The White House worries that such sanctions could have the unintended consequence of benefiting Tehran by increasing oil prices. Levin said the reworked provisions “give us confidence that sanctions will not result in a windfall for Iran.”

Also included in the bill is a provision blocking funds for the construction of domestic facilities that would house people now detained at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Staff writer Peter Finn contributed to this report.

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