The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday defended a congressional move to require military custody for many terror suspects and insisted that the Obama administration's opposition is misguided.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona said the provision in a defense bill, part of a package of steps dealing with the detention and prosecution of terror suspects, had the strong backing of Republicans and Democrats when the panel approved the legislation in June. However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this week that White House opposition and concern among several lawmakers over the provision was blocking the sweeping bill.
Congress and the White House have been at odds over detention policy ever since Obama was sworn in. Lawmakers have resisted the administration's efforts to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to try terror suspects in federal courts in the United States rather than by military tribunal.
The latest dispute centers on a provision that would require military custody of a suspect determined to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliate and involved in the planning or carrying out of an attack on the United States. The administration argues that such a step would hamper efforts by the FBI or other law enforcement while requiring military custody for all terror suspects.
"Our counterterrorism professionals would be compelled to hold all captured terrorists in military custody, casting aside our most effective and time-tested tool for bringing suspected terrorists to justice _ our federal courts," White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan said in a Sept. 16 speech at Harvard University.
McCain said the provision does not apply to all terror suspects.
"It only applies to members of al-Qaida and its affiliates who are captured in a very narrow set of circumstances: those captured attacking the U.S. or its coalition allies, or attempting, or planning such an attack," the senator said. "This narrow focus is far from Mr. Brennan's claim that military custody would be required for all terrorists. That is simply wrong. It grossly distorts the scope of the provision."
McCain also pointed out that the provision contains a national security waiver that the administration could exercise.
Reid raised the prospect of a pared-back defense bill without the divisive provisions. McCain said he would work with Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., to try to resolve the dispute.
Still, Republicans pushed for Reid to allow the Senate to debate the bill and try to change the provisions if warranted.
"It's nothing short of outrageous that the majority leader is blocking this bill," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., a member of the Armed Services panel.