Reid Stands Against Indefinite Detention in Senate Bill

October 5, 2011

Senator Harry Reid
Senator Harry Reid © Getty Images

Yesterday, we got some good news on human rights from Capitol Hill: Senate Majority leader Harry Reid threw down the gauntlet against indefinite detention provisions in this year’s National Defense Authorizations Act (NDAA). Reid declared he would not bring the new defense appropriations act to the floor unless provisions related to holding suspected terrorist detainees indefinitely were struck from the bill.

Amnesty members from all over the country have made a concerted impact by taking action in recent days, asking Senator Reid (D-NV) and Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) to strike down provisions on indefinite detention from the bill.

In response, Senator Reid has said that the issue should warrant its own hearings after calls from both the chairs of the Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.

Sections 1031 and 1032 of the act would seek to hold any terrorism suspect indefinitely and place a subset of those captured in mandatory military detention. The current provisions are strongly opposed by the White House. John Brennan, the Deputy National Security Adviser, called “the language in the bill – a non starter”. The bill was due to come to the Senate floor in the coming weeks and if amendments are offered it could get even worse.

The bill both undermines the rights of US citizens and also sets up a dangerous double standard in which equality before the law — a bedrock principle — only applies to some and not others.

It would threaten the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike and would be the first time since the McCarthy era that Congress would consider a bill to indefinitely detain US citizens not charged with any crime.

Even in the Nixon era, legislation was specifically passed to prevent detention without charge, thanks to the tireless efforts of Japanese Americans who suffered horrible abuses as victims of internment after Pearl Harbor.

The situations are not analogous, and some of the bill’s supporters — including Senator McCain — are honest and honorable men. But this is not about the decency of those who would support the bill; it’s about the wisdom of introducing legislation that seeks to undermine fundamental rights.

The bill would in effect silence and sideline the most experienced prosecutors and law enforcement officers in the United States and place detainees of dubious distinction in the hands of an overstretched military which is all too often ill-equipped to handle the task.

Ten years after 9/11 we still live in fear of dark shadows in the night. Some threats are real and some fears are justified, but we live in a world of laws and rights built and fought for over generations for our own protection. Before we tear this apart, shouldn’t we at the very least be asking why?