President Obama signed a $662 billion defense bill on Saturday that includes GOP-authored provisions giving the military greater authority to detain terrorism suspects indefinitely — even if they're U.S. citizens. Obama had threatened to veto the bill, and still has "serious reservations" about the detention rules. But Obama said Congress made last-minute changes that rendered the National Defense Authorization Act "minimally acceptable," and he vowed never to allow open-ended military detention of citizens without trial. Still, did Obama betray his progressive supporters?
No doubt about it. Obama sold out: "Thomas Jefferson must be spinning in his grave right now," says Michael Coard at Philadelphia magazine. Citizens have a constitutional right to a civilian trial — and civilian courts have proven far more effective than military tribunals at convicting terrorists, anyway. Obama came into office rejecting the phony idea that we had to choose between our safety and our ideals. "What a difference [three] years make."
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It's not perfect, but Obama improved detention laws: Civil liberties groups should be thanking Obama, say Marty Lederman and Steve Vladeck at Lawfare. Already, enemy forces can be held until hostilities end. If Obama had buckled and accepted the more extreme earlier versions of this bill, that authority would have been expanded. But he held out for changes, such as greater flexibility in transferring prisoners from Guantanamo, that "will be distinct improvements vis-a-vis the status quo."
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The law still sets a dangerous precedent: It's good that Obama expressed discomfort with this bill's detainee measures, says David Dayen at Firedoglake. But "the problem with this bill was always about codifying of indefinite military detention into the law, available for any future president to pick up and use." And remember, the law's language is vague — you can detain anyone "associated" with al Qaeda. That's a very slippery slope.
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