White House, senators clash over detainee policy

WASHINGTON Thu Nov 17, 2011 7:16pm EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers denounced President Barack Obama's policy on the prosecution of suspected militants on Thursday and the White House accused senators of micromanaging in a clash over how best to handle detainees.

Obama has had a long struggle with some lawmakers who oppose his election campaign pledges to close the U.S. military prison for suspected militants at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and move their cases to courts in the United States.

"By any judgment, the president's policy, the president's strategy ... concerning detainees has been a total and abysmal failure," Republican Senator John McCain said in debate on a bill setting defense policy and authorizing spending levels for the 2012 fiscal year that began in October.

The White House Office of Management and Budget said it had "serious legal and policy concerns" about detainee sections of the bill and warned of a veto recommendation if the measure limited Obama's ability to move against the suspects.

"The detention provisions in this bill micromanage the work of our experienced counterterrorism professionals, including our military commanders, intelligence professionals, seasoned counterterrorism prosecutors or other operatives in the field," it said in a statement.

The provisions in the defense authorization bill would permit the indefinite military detention of suspected militants under the laws of war. The detainees could be held until the end of the conflict, tried by military commissions or other tribunals or sent to other countries.

The measure would enable the president to override military detention in certain cases and says it would not be applicable to U.S. citizens or lawful U.S. residents.

But critics warned it could be read as requiring military custody for certain suspects or even permitting indefinite detention of Americans.

"It would authorize the indefinite detention of American citizens without charge or trial," Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat like Obama, said during the debate.

"Indefinite detention. We have not ever done this before, except ... maybe during World War Two incarcerating Japanese Americans," she said. "This is a very serious thing we're doing and people should understand its impact."

Supporters said the bill aims to give the administration the tools it needs to move against suspected militants captured in the United States to gather intelligence rather than treat them as criminal suspects to be prosecuted.

"Telling a terrorist 'You have the right to remain silent' is counter to what we need to do to protect Americans," Senator Kelly Ayotte said. "We don't want them to remain silent. We want them to tell us everything they know."

Former President George W. Bush, a Republican, set off a decade of legal wrangling when he authorized trials for suspected militants in military tribunals in November 2001.

Bush said the people who carried out the September 11 attacks on the United States two months earlier did not deserve legal protections granted to civilians or soldiers.

Congress has reworked the system twice and only six cases have been completed: four in which defendants pleaded guilty in exchange for leniency and one in which the accused offered no defense because he said the system lacked legitimacy.

The Obama administration sought to try suspected September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators in a civilian court in Manhattan but abandoned the effort earlier this year, saying lawmakers had tied their hands by refusing the necessary funding.

"The president of the United States campaigned saying that he would close Guantanamo Bay," said McCain, Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential race. "Guantanamo Bay remains open."

"They had a great idea: Let's take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to New York City. That's a great idea. Let's have $300 million in security costs," he said. "Obviously that one got the support it deserved."

(Editing by John O'Callaghan)

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