Indefinite Detention of Citizens: A Response To Senator Carl Levin

Yesterday, my column “10 Reasons The United States Is No Longer The Land Of The Free” ran in the Sunday Washington Post. I have been heartened by response to the column. However, a few commenters continue to suggest that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) does not allow for the indefinite detention of citizens. This claim is being advanced by Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.) in emails and fax messages to voters. I wanted to respond to Senator Levin’s points which are detached from language of the law and the clear intent of the majority of Senators. I would also like to address those who have stated that our liberties are not at risk when such powers will not affect most Americans.

I have previously explained why the claim by Sen. Levin is unfounded, as have others like the ACLU and commentators like Glenn Greenwald. The White House itself offered the spin to supporters in Congress, explaining why the President reneged on his pledge to veto the law. The White House is saying that changes to the law made it unnecessary to veto the legislation. That spin is facially ridiculous. The changes were the inclusion of some meaningless rhetoric after key amendments protecting citizens were defeated. The provision merely states that nothing in the provisions could be construed to alter Americans’ legal rights. Since the Senate clearly views citizens are not just subject to indefinite detention but even execution without a trial, the change offers nothing but rhetoric to hide the harsh reality. The exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032) is the screening language for the real section, 1031, which offers no exemption for American citizens from the authorization to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial. Section 1031 only contains a meaningless provision stating “Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.”

First, this provision was added after an amendment to exempt citizens was defeated by the Senate — legislative history that any court is likely to note in the interpretation of its meaning.

Second, the fact that the Senate put a clear exemption in the mandatory detention provision for citizens but opted not to simply include the same provision in the discretionary detention provision reinforces this meaning.

Third, after the exemption for citizens was defeated overwhelmingly, the same Senators who voted to deny any exemption proceeded to vote for this language — clearly indicating that it did not offer such protection for citizens.

Fourth, Levin and others are seeking to deny the authority that the President just acknowledged in his signing statement. Obama stated “I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.” He does not deny that he has such authority . . . only that he does not intend to use it.

Fifth, Levin admitted on the floor that it was the White House that insisted on eliminating the exemption for citizens — affirming that without such an exemption, citizens would be subject to such detention. In an exchange with Senator Udall, Levin stated:

Is the Senator familiar with the fact that it was the administration which asked us to remove the very language which we had in the bill which passed the committee, and that we removed it at the request of the administration that this determination would not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful residents? Is the Senator familiar with the fact that it was the administration which asked us to remove the very language, the absence of which is now objected to by the Senator from Illinois?

Sixth, many of the members at the time of passage voiced their understanding that the provision authorized the indefinite detention of citizens – including those who wanted such a power codified and those who opposed the power. For example, At least Senator Lindsey Graham was honest when he said on the Senate floor that “1031, the statement of authority to detain, does apply to American citizens and it designates the world as the battlefield, including the homeland.”

Seventh, the language that was ultimately put into the bill was standard cover language for Senators who knew that they would be criticized for voting for the law. Indeed, when Levin referred to the language, he insisted that it would merely permit what is already permitted by law “whatever it may be.” Of course, the White House has claimed the right to kill citizens on the president’s sole authority. The indefinite detention of citizens would seem the lesser included in such a greater. Moreover, the Senators refused to change the existing law by putting in an exemption for citizens. It is also worth noting that the White House has successfully opposed the right of citizens to present national security powers to federal courts for independent review. What is the “law” is often only the assertion of power by the President – unchecked by judicial review.

Levin has been hammered by civil libertarians and liberals over his role in passing this harmful law. His official Senate site now features a statement at the top. One of his financial supporters (who told me that he had declared that he will not to support Levin in the future due to the bill) sent me the following email from Levin’s office:

“The provisions on detention of terror suspects in the bill got more attention than all these other important priorities. The criticism of these provisions has usually been wildly inaccurate; if the bill did what some of its critics claim, I would have led the opposition. . . . It does not prohibit civilian trials for terror suspects. It does not strip the FBI and other civilian law enforcement agencies of their authority. It does not allow the military to make arrests on U.S. soil. It does not enact new authority to hold U.S. citizens without trial or charge. It does not provide for indefinite detention of citizens without access to civilian courts.”

Note the use of new authority. This is authority that has been claimed as being part of the President’s inherent authority — just as he claims the right to kill citizens. However, this law codifies new detention powers and the Senate expressly chose not to exempt citizens — and the President himself acknowledged the ability to indefinitely detain citizens in his pledge not to use it. Moreover, it was the duty of Levin and others to fight the passage of this law in the absence of an exemption, including fighting to use every power available from a filibuster to demanding a president veto. Instead, they took the political convenient approach and sought to excuse their act of constitutional nonfeasance behind this meaningless language.

I am hardly shocked that senators are not answering the criticism over this provision by being open about their failure to protect citizens. However, I continue to be amazed by comments on the Washington Post and this blog from citizens that we are not really losing any rights because most citizens are unlikely to be subject to these powers. It is disgraceful argument that only “those” people will be denied rights so I must remain free. Of course, since these are secret powers, you are not likely to know if you have been subject to surveillance or some other measures. More importantly, something is not a right if it is discretionary with your government to allow or to take away. By the time you find yourself denied of the right, it is too late to do anything about it. It is the same amoral logic described by pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Thankfully are we not facing the type of horror faced by Niemöller, but the logic is the same: I do not need to object unless the government denies me a right.

The government always embraces abusive power by targeting the least popular among us. The test of patriotism is to fight for the values that define us. While people appear ready to protest over taxes against “big government,” some of the people often seem to remain silent in the face of the very abuses that the Framers sought to combat from indefinite detention to warrantless searches to assassination. The play on security as a rationale to limit freedom is nothing new. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Jonathan Turley

234 thoughts on “Indefinite Detention of Citizens: A Response To Senator Carl Levin”

  1. “This is another window into … the steady assault against civil liberties,” Hedges says. “What makes [the ruling] so monumental is that, finally, we have a federal judge who stands up for the rule of law.” -Chris Hedges

    Thursday, May 17, 2012

    Journalist, Plaintiff Chris Hedges Hails “Monumental” Ruling Blocking NDAA Indefinite Detention

    “In a rare move, a federal judge has struck down part of a controversial law signed by President Obama that gave the government the power to indefinitely detain anyone it considers a terrorism suspect anywhere in the world without charge or trial — including U.S. citizens. Judge Katherine Forrest of the Southern District of New York ruled the indefinite detention provision of the National Defense Authorization Act likely violates the First and Fifth Amendments of U.S. citizens. We speak with Chris Hedges, a journalist who filed the suit challenging the NDAA along with six others, and Bruce Afran, the group’s attorney. “This is another window into … the steady assault against civil liberties,” Hedges says. “What makes [the ruling] so monumental is that, finally, we have a federal judge who stands up for the rule of law.”

    Chris Hedges, senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and was part of a team of reporters that was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. He is the author of a number of books, including Death of the Liberal Class and The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress. He is a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging the National Defense Authorization Act.

    Bruce Afran, lawyer representing Chris Hedges and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the National Defense Authorization Act.

    Excerpt of interview, which touches on “appeal” issues:

    AMY GOODMAN: So, what happens now? I mean, this was struck down by Judge Forrest. Where does it go now?

    BRUCE AFRAN: Well, technically, there could be a trial on a full issue of a permanent injunction. That very rarely ever happens. Usually, the government will appeal. They have 60 days to appeal. We don’t know what will happen. We, Carl Mayer and I, my co-counsel, are calling on the government to issue a permanent—agree to a permanent injunction, put this permanently, you know, under a rule that it is unconstitutional and can’t be enforced. Right now it is illegal. The judge has put a hold on it. And we’re calling on the President to agree to make it a permanent injunction.

    AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, where do you go from here?

    CHRIS HEDGES: I think that, you know, this is a never-ending battle. The security and surveillance state has already boxed us in, those of us who don’t conform to the official narrative. And this was a tremendous victory, but there are still important issues to be fought. The Espionage Act is a good one, the Authorization to Use Military Force Act itself, the PATRIOT Act, the refusal to restore habeas corpus, of course the FISA Amendment Act, the warrantless wiretapping. There are still other issues that those of us who care about an open democracy have to go out and fight for.

    AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Chris Hedges, senior fellow at the Nation Institute, former correspondent for the New York Times; Bruce Afran, lawyer representing Chris Hedges and the other plaintiffs in this lawsuit challenging the National Defense Authorization Act. Judge Forrest has struck down the statute that would allow for the indefinite detention of anyone anywhere considered a terrorism suspect, without charge, without trial, including U.S. citizens.

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