America’s ISA

Early this month, to little international outcry, the US Senate passed a bill that would make Malaysia’s controversial ISA look positively tame by comparison. The bill in question is the National Defense Authorization Act. Glenn Greenwald of Salon summarizes the most important provisions as follows:

(1) mandates that all accused Terrorists be indefinitely imprisoned by the military rather than in the civilian court system; it also unquestionably permits (but does not mandate) that even U.S. citizens on U.S. soil accused of Terrorism be held by the military rather than charged in the civilian court system (Sec. 1032);

(2) renews the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) with more expansive language: to allow force (and military detention) against not only those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and countries which harbored them, but also anyone who “substantially supports” Al Qaeda, the Taliban or “associated forces” (Sec. 1031); and,

(3) imposes new restrictions on the U.S. Government’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo (Secs. 1033-35).

The bill passed in the Senate by an amazing 93 to 7. The more leftist Newsvoice puts it much more dramatically:

This bill, passed late last night in a 93-7 vote, declares the entire USA to be a ”battleground” upon which U.S. military forces can operate with impunity, overriding Posse Comitatus and granting the military the unchecked power to arrest, detain, interrogate and even assassinate U.S. citizens with impunity.

I think I don’t have to explain how insane it is to use the military to perform functions that are properly the province of the police on domestic soil or to give the military express powers to detain anyone indefinitely without trial as long as they have been accused of “terrorism”. Previously the best hope for quashing this ridiculousness was an amendment proposed by Senator Mark Udall which would have struck out the most offensive part of the bill dealing with indefinite detention. But the amendment was defeated 37-61 in late November.

The bill is not yet law. As a spending bill, it originated in the House of Representatives and differences between the House version of the bill and the Senate version will need to reconciled and the final version passed once again by the House. But considering the massive support the bill received in the Senate, it seems that passage through the House will be a sure thing. This means that the only real chance of stopping it would be a presidential veto and indeed President Obama has promised to do so. But will he, when 2012 is an election year? In any case, the veto can still be overridden by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Why would US politicians pass such an abomination so clearly abhorrent to the fundamental American principles of liberty and individual rights? Why can’t they see how easy it would be for future presidents to label their political opponents as terrorists and apply this law to them? There are many explanations. In an election year, US politicians can’t allow themselves to be perceived as being soft on terrorism. If the failure to pass this bill allowed a single Guantanamo detainee to be released and he were later to be found to have been involved in terrorism, this would kill the career of any politician who voted against it. It also helps that most of the bill is about funding the military and the offensive portion is only a tiny part of the whole thing. Any politician who voted against it would instantly be painted by opponents as being against US troops.

Plus, while I’m ordinarily very skeptical about conspiracy theories, in this case, it’s hard to shake the impression that this is at least partly driven by lobbyists who have an interest in ensuring that the War on Terror, complete with all the defense expenditure that entails, goes on despite the killing of Osama bin Laden. In any case, this is an extremely sad day for America and as long as such provisions remain part of American law, it’s hard to imagine how the US could have any moral authority when arguing against similarly draconian measures in developing countries. As loth as I am to quote the awful Star Wars prequels, it seems appropriate here, “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

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