Senate majority leader Harry Reid

© 2011 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The US Senate should remove dangerous and counterproductive provisions in the defense spending bill that would militarize law enforcement in US terrorism cases and authorize long-term indefinite detention without charge, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The Defense spending bill seeks to throw away time-tested, effective tools for countering terrorism and instead make the US military the world’s jailer,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch. “Preventing the FBI, local police, and federal courts from working on terrorism cases will interfere with the most effective means of combating terrorism and obtaining actionable intelligence.”

The provisions are contained in the Senate version of National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2012, which authorizes funding for most Defense Department operations. The provisions require the military to handle the cases of certain terrorism suspects previously handled by federal, state, and local law enforcement authorities. The secretary of defense could waive this requirement, but the military – not civilian law enforcement – would make that decision. The proposed provisions in the bill would also codify the practice of indefinite detention without charge into US law, and make permanent current restrictions preventing Guantanamo detainees – even those cleared for release by the administration – from being transferred to home or third countries.

In a letter sent on October 4, 2011, to Senator Carl Levin and Senator John McCain, chair and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid warned that the provisions, by taking away the use of the US criminal justice system in certain terrorism cases, threaten to limit flexibility the administration needs to effectively fight terrorism. Taking away that flexibility, Reid wrote, “would significantly threaten our national security.” The same day on the Senate floor, Reid said the bill should be considered by appropriate committees, such as the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, before being put to the Senate floor for a vote.

In May, the House of Representatives considered its version of the 2012 NDAA. It included provisions that would mandate more military commission trials at Guantanamo. It also included provisions expanding thepresident's power to attack military targets and detain, without trial, people with no connection to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US. Despite a veto threat by the Obama administration, the House approved a version of the bill containing those provisions. After the Senate passes its version of the bill, it must be reconciled with the House version before being sent back to the president for signature or veto.

“The Senate committee’s defense bill foolishly rejects the role of civilian law enforcement in countering terrorism,” Prasow said. “That rejection will undermine, not help, the administration’s ability to fight terrorism.”