Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has serious concerns about provisions in a sweeping defense bill dealing with the handling of terrorist suspects, but the Pentagon stopped short on Wednesday of threatening that President Barack Obama would veto the legislation.
In a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Panetta complained that despite weeks of negotiations with lawmakers to revise the measure, the bill would still limit the administration's ability to detain, interrogate and prosecute suspected terrorists. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee, and John McCain of Arizona, the panel's top Republican, had changed some of the provisions to address administration objections, but the White House and Pentagon still considered them too intrusive.
Questioned about a possible veto threat, Capt. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that Panetta "has not, to our knowledge, recommended to veto this. ... He wants to work with them as they move forward. ... And that's the purpose of the letter, to express his concerns."
One of Panetta's major concerns 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.
The provision also has divided Democrats in the Senate, drawing strong opposition from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Mark Udall, D-Colo. Udall has indicated he would try to change the legislation when the Senate considers the bill, possibly this week.
In his letter, Panetta wrote that the provision "restrains the Executive Branch's options to utilize, in a swift and flexible fashion, all the counterterrorism tools that are now legally available."
He said the revisions fail to clarify that it applies to individuals captured abroad and "may needlessly complicate efforts by frontline law enforcement professionals to collect critical intelligence concerning operations and activities within the United States."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Armed Services Committee, defended the changes as a "good compromise" that the administration should accept.
Among the changes to the military custody requirement is an exclusion for U.S. citizens or legal aliens and clarification that the mandatory step need not interrupt ongoing surveillance, intelligence gathering and interrogations.
"The military custody provision has been changed to accommodate what I thought were some legitimate concerns of the administration," Graham said in an interview Wednesday. "There's been a criminalization of the war that makes a lot of members uncomfortable and this is congressional involvement that brings balance."
At the Pentagon, spokesman George Little said the department and Panetta are "concerned about maintaining maximum flexibility when it comes to where a detainee ends up in a judicial process. .... He believes that that flexibility should remain."