By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers moved toward a confrontation over the government's power to detain suspected terrorists on Wednesday as the Republican-led House of Representatives began debate on a defense policy bill the White House has threatened to veto.
Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, sought to amend the law to guarantee people arrested in the United States on terrorism charges could not be detained indefinitely without trial or transferred to military custody.
Other lawmakers, concerned that Smith's proposals went too far, sought to defuse the issue by proposing amendments that would clarify the rights of citizens to challenge their detention in court.
The amendments are being proposed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that sets defense policy and authorizes spending levels for the Pentagon.
This year's bill proposes a $554 billion base budget for the Defense Department, nearly $4 billion over what President Barack Obama has proposed.
It seeks to overturn many of the cuts proposed by the Pentagon as part of efforts to reduce defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade, prompting a White House veto threat on Tuesday.
Smith, joined by a bipartisan group that included Republican presidential contender Ron Paul, warned that laws passed since the September 11, 2001, attacks had eroded constitutional guarantees against unreasonable detention.
Current law enables the president to declare a person, including a citizen, an enemy of the state and order his indefinite detention, the group told a news conference.
While a detainee is guaranteed a "habeas corpus" right of judicial review, that review looks only at the legality of the detention and does not guarantee suspects a trial or prevent them from indefinite detention, they said. The law also requires some terrorism suspects detained in the United States be held in military custody, they said.
"What we need to understand is that is an extraordinary amount of power to grant to the executive branch," Smith said.
"The president does not need this authority to keep us safe," Smith said. "Leaving it on the books is an unnecessary threat to our civil liberties."
In New York on Wednesday, a federal judge blocked enforcement of a section in last year's National Defense Authorization Act that authorizes indefinite military detention for those deemed to have "substantially supported" al Qaeda, the Taliban or 'associated forces.
Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said during debate on Wednesday night that because of concerns about detainee provisions included in last year's authorization bill, his panel had proposed new language to ensure the rights of citizens to challenge their detention in court.
"Some want to go further and have this bill prohibit military detention and interrogation of foreign terrorists in the United States," said McKeon, a Republican.
"After all the blood and treasure we have spent taking the fight to the enemy to prevent terrorists from coming to the United States, I find this astonishing," he said. "Why would we weaken our ability to fight foreign terrorists here at home?"
But Smith said giving people the right to a judicial review of their detention did not go far enough and would not prevent some from being transferred to the military for interrogation.
He pointed to the case of "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was convicted of attempting to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009.
The decision to let civilian law enforcement authorities handle his interrogation and prosecution sparked an outcry among some lawmakers who believed the case should have been dealt with through the military as an act of war rather than a crime.
"This myth has been created that somehow only the military can successfully interrogate people," Smith said. "Well, the FBI and every single law enforcement agency across this country would bristle at that notion. Every day, that's what they do."
But some lawmakers rejected giving foreign terrorism suspects captured in the United States access to the U.S. judicial system. Republican Representative Louie Gohmert, who introduced his own amendment on the issue, said Smith's proposals went too far.
"If they are captured on our soil, they will have more rights than our own military has under the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice)," he said. "It just galls me to no end to think people who declared war, who may be captured on our own soil, would get better rights than our own military."
(Additional reporting by Basil Katz in New York; Editing by Peter Cooney)