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Senate Passes Controversial Defense Bill


The Senate last night passed a defense bill that includes controversial provisions for handling terrorism suspects. The bill would send most detainees into military custody, not into the hands of the FBI. And it would allow the U.S. government to hold some suspects indefinitely without charge, without trial. Those ideas ran into strong opposition from national security experts across the Obama administration, setting the stage for a possible veto by the president. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The day started with top lawyers from the Pentagon and the Justice Department warning about bad consequences if the Senate refused to overhaul detainee provisions in the national defense policy bill. A few hours later on the Senate floor, Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin said the bill...

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: Would for the first time in the history of the United States require our military to take custody of certain terrorism suspects in the United States. On its face, that doesn't sound offensive, but in fact it creates a world of problems.

JOHNSON: And here are a few of those problems, according to the White House: delays in getting the military to the scene of an incident inside the U.S., confusion among investigators about who does what, and possible disruptions to interrogations already in progress.

Another controversial provision in the Senate bill could allow authorities to hold people suspected of working with al-Qaida without trial for years. A last minute bipartisan compromise said the Senate wouldn't change existing law. But some Democrats and civil liberties groups said that left up in the air whether U.S. citizens could be detained in this country indefinitely, without charges.

Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, says there's nothing wrong with taking a hard line against American terrorists.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I'm just saying to any American citizen, if you want to help al-Qaida, you do so at your own peril. You can get killed in the process. You can get detained indefinitely. And when you're being questioned and you say to the interrogator, I want my lawyer, the interrogator will say, you don't have a right to a lawyer because you're a military threat.

JOHNSON: California Democrat Dianne Feinstein argued the Obama administration, not the Congress, should decide whether the military or the civilian system works best in any given case.

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Why the constant push to put people in military custody rather than provide the flexibility so that evidence can be evaluated quickly? This person will get life in a federal court versus an inability or a problem in a military commission or vice versa.

JOHNSON: But Feinstein's attempts to amend the bill mostly failed after several Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with Republicans who support the detainee provisions.

The Senate and the House still have to meet to iron out differences in their versions of the defense policy bill. Analysts expect most of the controversial detainee provisions to survive. Chris Anders is following the issue for the American Civil Liberties Union. He says the pressure is on President Obama.

CHRIS ANDERS: And this president has no choice. If he wants to go down in history as a person who upholds American values, he's going to have to veto it.

JOHNSON: The White House has pushed back hard to fight the detainee proposals, Anders says, and now is no time to stop.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.