WASHINGTON — The White House is threatening to veto a massive defense bill over its requirement that terrorist suspects be held in military custody, setting up a showdown with Congress over the Obama administration's prosecution of the war on terror.
Shortly after the Senate started work Thursday on the long-awaited bill, the administration delivered a harsh assessment of provisions concerning U.S. handling of captured terror suspects, language that has divided senior Senate Democrats and drawn criticism from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The White House directed its toughest comments at the military custody requirement.
"This unnecessary, untested and legally controversial restriction of the president's authority to defend the nation from terrorist threats would tie the hands of our intelligence and law enforcement professionals," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in a statement.
The provision 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. It gives the president authority to waive the requirement based on national security. The administration argues that military custody, rather than civilian, would hamper the FBI and other law enforcement agencies seeking intelligence from terror suspects.
Ratcheting up its criticism, the White House said in its statement that applying such a requirement to those within the United States would challenge the "fundamental American principle that our military does not patrol our streets."
The White House also argued that in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the administrations of Republican President George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama have broken down walls between intelligence, law enforcement and the military and that Congress should not rebuild those walls and "unnecessarily make the job of preventing terrorist attacks more difficult."
Congress and the administration have been at odds since Obama took office over how to handle captured terror suspects. The administration insists that lawmakers are trying to limit the military, law enforcement and intelligence agents after they've succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, delivering two body blows to al-Qaida.
Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-Sept. 11 threat, holding captured terror suspects at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and trying them by military commissions. In a not-in-my-backyard argument, lawmakers have resisted transferring suspects to the United States.
The sweeping defense bill would authorize $662 billion for military personnel, weapons systems, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and national security programs in the Energy Department. Reflecting a period of austerity and deficit-driven cuts in military spending, the bill is $27 billion less than what Obama requested for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and $43 billion less than what Congress provided to the Pentagon this year.
In its statement, the administration said it supports the broader bill but cannot accept any legislation that "challenges or constrains the president's authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists and protect the nation" and would force the president's senior advisers to recommend a veto.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the panel, had negotiated for weeks with senior administration officials on acceptable language but failed to work out their differences. On Tuesday, Levin and McCain pressed ahead with a new version of the bill, revising the detainee policy. The committee approved the measure on a 26-0 vote.
Among the changes to the military custody requirement is an exclusion for U.S. citizens or legal aliens and clarification that the mandatory step need not interrupt ongoing surveillance, intelligence gathering and interrogations.
But the unanimous tally in the committee belied strong opposition in the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, object to the provisions, as does Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., a member of the Armed Services panel.
Targeting the provisions, Udall offered an amendment to strike the detainee provisions from the bill and instead permit the Intelligence, Judiciary and Armed Services committees to hold hearings with Pentagon and administration officials on the issue.
"These are people whose opinions should be carefully considered before we put these proposals into our legal framework," Udall said, citing the committee leaders as well as Panetta.
Feinstein criticized the predilection of many in Congress to rely solely on the military.
Several Republicans defended the bill's provisions, with McCain, Obama's 2008 White House rival, countering that if the president had had a coherent policy, the committee's actions wouldn't have been necessary.
"The president's policy has been a total and abysmal failure," McCain said although he indicated that lawmakers would continue discussions with the administration over the provisions.
Breaking with several of his fellow Democrats, Levin insisted that his committee has "gone a long way" to address the administration's concerns.
"There have been misstatements, misimpressions, misinterpretations of the provisions of our bill," Levin said.
Panetta was on Capitol Hill Thursday to meet privately with several senators about some elements of the bill. The Pentagon chief met with Leahy and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., about the popular congressional effort to make the chief of the National Guard a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The military's top brass has argued against such a step, saying the status quo is fine.
Leahy later offered an amendment to expand the Joint Chiefs.
Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., offered an amendment to expand sanctions on Iran to include foreign financial institutions that conduct transactions through the Central Bank of Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently said Iran was suspected of clandestine work that is "specific to nuclear weapons."
The Senate is not expected to complete work on the defense bill until early December.