Jacob Sullum

Do you see a problem with a law that authorizes indefinite military detention of anyone the president identifies as an enemy of the state? For President Obama, the problem is clear: The law does not give him enough discretion.

Obama has threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization Act if the final version includes a provision approved by the Senate last week that requires military detention of some terrorism suspects. Obama, like his predecessor, wants the leeway to keep them in civilian custody and maybe even give them a trial, if he so chooses. Those of us who are not the president are apt to be more concerned about the unchecked power the bill gives him to lock us up and throw away the key.

Defenders of the bill's detention provisions say they merely codify powers granted by the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that Congress approved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But unlike the AUMF, Section 1031 of the National Defense Authorization Act explicitly "affirms" the legality of military detention "without trial." Furthermore, it says such treatment is permitted not only for "a person who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks" or who "harbored those responsible" (language that echoes the AUMF), but also for anyone who joins or supports al-Qaida, the Taliban or "associated forces" -- a much wider net.

Section 1032 of the bill creates a presumption in favor of military detention for a member of al-Qaida or an allied organization who "participated in the course of planning or carrying out an attack or attempted attack against the United States or its coalition partners." But it says "the requirement to detain a person in military custody under this section does not extend to citizens of the United States."

Taken together, these two sections mean military detention is authorized but not required for U.S. citizens. As Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading supporter of the bill, put it on the Senate floor last month: "1032, the military custody provision ... doesn't apply to American citizens. 1031, the statement of authority to detain, does apply to American citizens, and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland."


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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