Senate Approves $662B Defense Bill

By  | 

WASHINGTON (AP) - Ignoring a presidential veto threat, the
Democratic-controlled Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a massive, $662 billion defense bill that would require the military
to hold suspected terrorists linked to al-Qaida or its affiliates,
even those captured on U.S. soil.

The vote was 93-7 for the bill authorizing money for military
personnel, weapons systems, national security programs in the
Energy Department, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the
fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Reflecting a period of austerity and
a winding down of decade-old conflicts, the bill is $27 billion
less than what President Barack Obama requested and $43 billion
less than what Congress gave the Pentagon this year.

Shortly before final passage, the Senate unanimously backed
crippling sanctions on Iran as fears about Tehran developing a
nuclear weapon outweighed concerns about driving up oil prices that
would hit economically strapped Americans at the gas pump. The vote
was 100-0.

The Senate's version of the defense bill still must be
reconciled with the House-passed measure in the final weeks of the
congressional session.

In an escalating fight with the White House, the bill would ramp
up the role of the military in handling terror suspects. Defense
Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller both oppose
the provisions as does the White House, which said it cannot accept
any legislation that "challenges or constrains the president's
authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous
terrorists and protect the nation."

Late Thursday, a White House official said the veto threat still

The bill would require military custody of a suspect deemed to
be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates and involved in plotting
or committing attacks on the United States. American citizens would
be exempt. The bill does allow the executive branch to waive the
authority based on national security and hold a suspect in civilian

The legislation also would give the government the authority to
have the military hold an individual suspected of terrorism
indefinitely, without a trial. Senate Intelligence Committee
Chairman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., had sought an exception to the
provision for U.S. citizens. Lengthy negotiations produced a
face-saving move that the Senate backed 99-1, a measure that said
nothing in the bill changes current law relating to the detention
of U.S. citizens and legal aliens.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.,
repeatedly pointed out that the June 2004 Supreme Court decision in
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely.

The series of detention provisions challenges citizens' rights
under the Constitution, tests the boundaries of executive and
legislative branch authority and sets up a showdown with the
Democratic commander in chief. Civil rights groups fiercely oppose
the bill.

"Since the bill puts military detention authority on steroids
and makes it permanent, American citizens and others are at greater
risk of being locked away by the military without charge or trial
if this bill becomes law," said Christopher Anders, senior
legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill reflects the politically charged dispute over whether
to treat suspected terrorists as prisoners of war or criminals. The
administration insists that the military, law enforcement and
intelligence agents need flexibility in prosecuting the war on
terror after they've succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and Anwar
al-Awlaki. Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to
respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, and that Obama has
failed to produce a consistent policy on handling terror suspects.

The Senate rejected an effort by Feinstein to limit a military
custody requirement for suspects to those captured outside the
United States. The vote was 55-45. Feinstein said her goal was to
ensure "the military won't be roaming our streets looking for
suspected terrorists."

The issue divided Democrats, with nine senators, many facing
re-election next year, breaking with their leadership and
administration to vote against the amendment. Republicans held
firm, with only Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mark Kirk of Illinois
and Mike Lee of Utah backing Feinstein's effort.

"We need the authority to hold those individuals in military
custody so we aren't reading them Miranda rights," Sen. Kelly
Ayotte, R-N.H., said in defense of the legislation.

Last week, the administration announced a new set of penalties
against Iran, including identifying for the first time Iran's
entire banking sector as a "primary money laundering concern."
This requires increased monitoring by U.S. banks to ensure that
they and their foreign affiliates avoid dealing with Iranian
financial institutions.

But lawmakers pressed ahead with even tougher penalties despite
reservations by the administration.

Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Kirk had widespread bipartisan
support for their amendment that would target foreign financial
institutions that do business with the Central Bank of Iran,
barring them from opening or maintaining correspondent operations
in the United States. It would apply to foreign central banks only
for transactions that involve the sale or purchase of petroleum or
petroleum products.

The sanctions on petroleum would only apply if the president
determines there is a sufficient alternative supply and if the
country with jurisdiction over the financial institution has not
significantly reduced its purchases of Iranian oil.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, David
Cohen, a senior Treasury Department official, and Wendy Sherman, an undersecretary of state, warned that the amendment could force up
oil prices - a financial boon for Iran.

"There is absolutely a risk that in fact the price of oil would
go up, which would mean that Iran would in fact have more money to
fuel its nuclear ambitions, not less," Sherman said. "And our
real objective here is to cut off the economic means that Iran has
for its nuclear program."

Cohen said the amendment would tell foreign banks and companies
"that if they continue to process oil transactions with the
Central Bank of Iran their access to the United States can be

"It is a very, very powerful threat," Cohen warned. "It is a
threat for the commercial banks to end their ability to transact in
the dollar and their ability really to function as major
international financial institutions," and one that could push
allies away from contributing to a coordinated effort against Iran.