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The Senate Defense Authorization votes: the high(and low)lights

December 2, 2011

The Senate spent much of this week debating the 2012 Defense Authorization bill, plowing through a slew of amendments.  The debate had some low points and high points in moving our foreign policy in a more peaceful and productive direction.

Afghanistan

By far the most exciting outcome of the week was the Senate’s passage by voice vote of Sen. Jeff Merkley’s amendment requiring a plan for accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Sen. Merkley sums up the significance of the vote well:

It was an historic moment. Never before has the U.S. Senate urged the President to speed up the process of bringing our troops home. The last similar amendment, in 2010, garnered only 18 votes. This year in June, 27 Senators signed on to a letter asking the President to draw down troops. The tide is turning.

You all have been persistent and powerful in your pressure on Congress around this issue, and the momentum continues in our direction. Sen. Merkley recognized Peace Action West supporters and others who helped build support for the amendment, and highlighted the importance of your efforts: “Yesterday’s vote shows that a smart, engaged, fierce grassroots effort can make a difference.”

This is an exciting achievement and we thank Sen. Merkley for his leadership. We will continue to build on this victory to increase pressure on the administration to end the war.

Iran

Unfortunately, the Senate stuck with its usual penchant for being “tough on Iran” no matter the cost. They unanimously passed an amendment to sanction entities that conduct transactions with Iran’s Central Bank. The Obama administration expressed strong opposition to the sanctions, pointing out the dire consequences, but the Senate plowed through those objections.

As Jamal Abdi of the National Iranian American Council noted:

Sanctions, hostility with the west, outside threats, and isolation are the lifeblood of this regime.  If the Iranian people were able to be a part of the rest of the world, the Iranian government’s repression could not stand the test of time.  Unfortunately, the Senate voted today to further punish the Iranian people, to entrench the regime, to punish the U.S. and its allies, and to pave the pathway to war.

The House has teed up a bill that is even worse, with provisions that effectively outlaw diplomacy. Congress has a long way to go to find a productive way of dealing with concerns about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.

Indefinite detention

One of the reasons the NDAA took so long to get to the floor was alarm over some dangerous provisions inserted in the Armed Services Committee that require military detention of suspected terrorists and allow for indefinite detention, including of American citizens.

Shamefully, multiple attempts to rein in this horrible policy were defeated. The debate on the provisions was rife with hyperbole and scare tactics (I think Sen. Lindsey Graham was trying to set a record for the number of times the word “Nazis” was used in a Senate debate). Sen. Mark Udall’s amendment to remove the provisions and require hearings and examination of the policy failed 38-60. Sen. Dianne Feinstein offered two more modest amendments, one that stipulated that they applied to people captured abroad, and the second stating that the provisions wouldn’t apply to American citizens. Each was defeated, 45-55.

The Senate ended up with a compromise amendment that leaves things open to interpretation. Adam Serwer at Mother Jones explains:

The reason the compromise amendment worked is that it leaves the question of domestic military detention open, leaving the matter for Supreme Court to resolve should a future president decide to assert the authority to detain a US citizen on American soil. Senators who defended the detention provisions can continue to say that current law allows Americans to be detained based on the 2004 Hamdi v Rumsfeld case in which an American captured fighting in Afghanistan was held in military detention. Opponents can continue to point out that the Hamdi case doesn’t resolve whether or not Americans can be detained indefinitely without charge if captured in their own country, far from any declared battlefield. They have the better of the argument.

The compromise amendment however, does nothing to address the Obama administration’s concerns about the bill. The Directors of the FBI and CIA, the secretary of defense, and the director of national intelligence have all said that the bill’s provision mandating military detention of non-citizen terror suspects apprehended on American soil would interfere with terrorism investigations and harm national security. That hasn’t changed. The question is whether or not the administration is willing to make good on its threat to veto the bill, or whether it was just bluffing.

 

 

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