The US Senate last week, in a vote that scrambled the usual partisan calculus, approved a controversial detainee policy - with Rhode Island Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse on a different side than you might expect.
The policy, which both senators voted for along with 15 of their Democratic colleagues and nearly every Republican in the chamber, would require the government to place suspected Al Qaeda figures, or members of allied groups, in military detention - even if arrested on American soil.
That provision includes an exemption for American citizens. But another - asserting that the United States has the right to hold terrorism suspects in military custody indefinitely and without trial - does not.
The policy - a compromise hashed out by the leading Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Commmitee, Carl Levin, and the leading Republican, John McCain - has faced sharp opposition from the Obama Administration, which argues that it “would raise serious and unsettled legal questions and would be
inconsistent with the fundamental American principle that our military
does not patrol our streets.”
An amendment put forward by Senator Diane Feinstein, which says the intent of the bill is not to allow for the indefinite detention of citizens and other legal residents, passed 99-1, with hopes that the measure would allay the administration's concerns. But the White House is still sending some signals that the president's threat to veto the big defense bill to which the detainee measure is attached is real.
I asked both senators' offices why they voted for the measure. Here's the response from Reed's spokesman, Chip Unruh:
“The Senator understands the gravity of the questions at issue. He voted for the Feinstein amendment which had the support of the civil liberties community, and he plans to strongly advocate for that clarification as the Congress and the President negotiate a final defense bill.”
And this was Whitehouse's statement:
“I support provisions that provide clear rules for handling suspected terrorists. While I am disappointed that the Senate narrowly rejected an amendment I cosponsored that would have preserved existing domestic safeguards, the provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act largely codify existing practice and will help settle the longstanding uncertainty over this difficult issue. Vigorous congressional oversight now will be required to ensure that the provisions are implemented through a sensible Memorandum of Understanding between DOD and DOJ in a way that protects national security and respects Americans’ constitutional rights."