Will You End Up in Guantanamo Bay Prison?

The focus on the Republican nomination battle threatens to overshadow a fascinating debate that unfolded this past week on Capitol Hill – one that crossed party lines and raised the possibility of a rare presidential veto.  The dispute centers on provisions in the $662 military authorization bill that lays out military policy and related spending parameters for the next fiscal year.  In an unusual coalition, libertarian-minded Senate Republicans including Rand Paul joined with liberal Democrats such as Diane Feinstein to fight a provision in the bill that would allow the military to hold suspected terrorists indefinitely, without the right to trial – even if they are American citizens captured on American soil.  Senators backing the provision, including Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain, and Democrat Carl Levin who chairs the Senate Armed Services committee, said its inclusion signified recognition that the War on Terror was taking place here at home as well as overseas. As Graham put it: “It is not unfair to make an American citizen account for the fact that they decided to help Al Qaeda to kill us all and hold them as long as it takes to find intelligence about what may be coming next. And when they say, ‘I want my lawyer,’ you tell them, ‘Shut up. You don’t get a lawyer.’” That view, they argue, is consistent with the Supreme Court ruling in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld allowing the government to hold Americans as enemy combatants. But critics including Paul argue that allowing the military to hold Americans captured within the United States without trial is a dangerous expansion of police powers and a violation of civil liberties.

Ultimately, the differences were papered over by an amendment that appears to give the president some flexibility to move suspected terrorists from military to civilian custody and which states that nothing in the legislation would alter existing law when it came to military detention of U.S. citizens and those captured on American soil.

Despite the overwhelming Senate support for passage (the bill passed 93-7 and will be reconciled with a House version. Senators voting nay included three Democrats, three Republicans and one independent), however, President Obama is still threatening to veto the bill in its current form.  However, if administration spokespersons are to be believed, Obama’s objection is based not so much on concern for civil liberties as it is on preserving the president’s authority and flexibility in fighting the war on terror. According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, “Counterterrorism officials from the Republican and Democratic administrations have said that the language in this bill would jeopardize national security by restricting flexibility in our fight against Al Qaeda.”  (The administration also objects to language in the bill that would restrict any transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo Bay prison for the next year.)  For these reasons, the President is still threatening to veto the bill, which now goes to the Republican-controlled House where it is unlikely to be amended in a way that satisfies the President’s concerns.  If not, this sets up an interesting scenario in which the President may have to decide whether to stick by his veto threat and hope that partisan loyalties kick in to prevent a rare veto override.

The debate over the authorization bill is another reminder of a point that you have heard me make before: that when it comes to national security issues and the War on Terror, President Obama’s views are much closer to his predecessor’s George W. Bush’s than they are to candidate Obama’s.  The reason, of course, is that once in office,the president – as the elected official that comes closest to embodying national sovereignty – feels the pressure of protecting the nation from attack much more acutely than anyone else. That pressure drives them to seek maximum flexibility in their ability to respond to external threats, and to resist any provision that appears to constrain their authority.  This is why Obama’s conduct of the War on Terror has followed so closely in Bush’s footsteps – both are motivated by the same institutional incentives and concerns.

The Senate debate, however, also illustrates a second point.  We often array elected officials along a single ideological line, from most conservative to most liberal. Think Bernie Sanders at one end and Jim DeMint at the other.  In so doing, we are suggesting that those individuals at the farthest ends of the spectrum have the greatest divergence in ideology.  But on some issues, including this authorization bill, that ideological model is misleading.  Instead, it is better to think of legislators arrayed in a circle, with libertarian Republicans and progressive Democrats sitting much closer together, say, at the top of the circle, joined together in their resistance to strong government and support for civil liberties.  At the “bottom” of the circle are Republicans like Graham and Democrats like Levin who share an affinity for strengthening the government’s ability to protect the nation’s security.

For Obama, however, the central  issue is not the clash of civil liberties and national security – it is the relative authority of the President versus Congress to conduct the War on Terror. That explains why he has stuck by his veto threat despite the legislative compromise.  And it raises an interesting test of power. To date he has issued only two presidential vetoes, by far the lowest number of any President in the modern era. His predecessor George W. Bush issued 12, and saw Congress override four – a historically high percentage of overrides.  On average, presidential vetoes are overridden about 7% of the time. These figures, however, underplay the use of veto threats as a bargaining tool.  In the 110th (2007-08) Congress alone, Bush issued more than 100 veto threats. I’ve not calculated Obama’s veto threats, but it is easy enough to do by going to the White House’s website and looking under its Statements of Administrative Policy (SAP’s) listings. Those should include veto threats. Note that most veto threats are relatively less publicized and often are issued early in the legislative process.  This latest veto threat, in contrast,seems to have attracted quite a bit of press attention.  It will be interesting to see whether, if the current authorization language remains unchanged, Obama will stick to his guns.

Meanwhile, keep those election predictions coming – there’s a free t-shirt at stake!



  1. David –
    Yep. Not surprisingly, 11 of Bush’s vetoes occurred after Republicans lost control of Congress. What’s perhaps most fascinating is that the three most recent presidents – Clinton, Bush and Obama – issued the fewest vetoes in their first two years, when they had party majorities, than any modern president, if I remember correctly. That speaks, I think, to the growing party unity that makes it easier for presidents to govern when they have a majority.

  2. I’m happy to know the President remembers he has the veto power. I just wish he would also remember he was voted in to change from “politics as usual,” and stand up for democratic principles.

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