WASHINGTON — The Obama administration has tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and other al-Qaida leaders. Yet, in spite of those successes, Republicans and some Democrats in Congress remain intent on challenging the administration's policies for handling captured terror suspects.
Those lawmakers insist that as a post-Sept. 11 nation wages war in Iraq and Afghanistan, captured terror suspects should be held at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and prosecuted by military tribunal. They have repeatedly rejected President Barack Obama's push to shutter Guantanamo as well as the administration's effort to detain suspects at facilities in the United States and try them in federal courts.
"It's the ultimate NIMBY situation," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., referring to the not-in-my-backyard argument. Guantanamo is "not going to close. ... I favor closing, but I also favor before announcing its closure finding a place where they could be kept."
Facing fierce congressional resistance, the administration has accepted restrictions on detention of terror suspects. Last year's defense bill and the omnibus spending bill that Obama and Congress agreed to in April barred the transfer of terror suspects from Guantanamo to the United States, prevented construction or modification of U.S. facilities to house suspects, and required the defense secretary to notify Congress before moving a terror suspect to a foreign country.
Now, however, the administration is pushing back by opposing detainee provisions in the latest defense bill. The fight could jeopardize the sweeping $683 billion legislation that would authorize spending on military personnel, weapons systems and the two wars in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Citing administration opposition as well as his own reservations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday he would hold up the bill until concerns over the detainee provisions are settled.
The administration insists that lawmakers are trying to tie the hands of the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents after they've succeeded in killing bin Laden in May and al-Awlaki in Yemen last week, delivering two body blows to al-Qaida. Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat and that the administration is being too rigid in ignoring viable options like military commissions.
The dispute comes as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner accused of planning the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole prepares to be arraigned later this month before a military judge at the U.S. Navy base. Abd al-Nashiri, who is charged with murder in violation of the law of war for allegedly planning the attack that killed 17 sailors, would face the first death-penalty war crimes trial for a prisoner at Guantanamo under Obama.
The administration also is considering a military trial in the United States for a Hezbollah commander now detained in Iraq.
The administration's opposition to congressional efforts was clearly spelled out by White House counterterror chief John Brennan, who in a Sept. 16 speech at Harvard University argued for a case-by-case approach in prosecuting terrorist suspects.
"We have established a practical, flexible, results-driven approach that maximizes our intelligence collection and preserves our ability to prosecute dangerous individuals," Brennan said. "Anything less — particularly a rigid, inflexible approach — would be disastrous."
The disagreement centers on two competing defense bills, one passed by the Republican-controlled House in May, the other produced by the Democratic-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee in June.
Specifically, the administration finds three provisions — two in the House bill and one in the Senate — to be the most problematic.
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