WASHINGTON — Congress is pressing ahead with a massive $662 billion defense bill that requires military custody for terrorism suspects linked to al-Qaida, including those captured within the U.S., with lawmakers hoping their last-minute revisions will mollify President Barack Obama and eliminate a veto threat.
Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced late Monday that they had reached agreement on the policy-setting legislation that had gotten caught up in an escalating fight on whether to treat suspected terrorists as prisoners of war or criminals in the civilian justice system.
Responding to personal appeals from Obama and his national security team, the lawmakers added language on national security waivers and other changes that they hoped would ensure administration support for the overall bill.
"I assured the president that we were working on additional assurances, that the concerns were not accurate," Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., who spoke to Obama last week, told reporters at a news conference. "That we'd do everything we could to make sure they were allayed, and met."
White House officials said Tuesday they were reviewing the bill. It was unclear whether they would hold firm on the veto threat.
Overall, the bill would authorize $662 billion 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 on Oct. 1. Reflecting a period of austerity and a winding down of decade-old conflicts, the bill is $27 billion less than Obama requested and $43 billion less than Congress gave the Pentagon for fiscal 2011.
The legislation would impose tough new sanctions on Iran, targeting foreign financial institutions that do business with the Central Bank in Tehran. Levin said the negotiators made some changes to address concerns of the Treasury Department, but he said the legislation is "96 percent" of what the Senate had unanimously backed.
One of the measure's chief sponsors welcomed the results. "Moving forward, the Congress will need to be more vigilant than ever before in holding the administration's feet to the fire to collapse the Central Bank of Iran and force international financial institutions to choose between doing business in the U.S. and doing business in Iran," said Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
Reflecting growing public weariness with more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, the bill requires the president to develop options to accelerate the ability of the Afghanistan National Security Forces to take responsibility for the country's protection, with benchmarks on progress.
The lawmakers said they hoped the House and Senate could vote on the final bill by Thursday and send it to the president.
The issue of how to handle captured terrorist suspects has divided Obama's senior national security officials and Congress, as well as Democrats and Republicans.
The administration insists that military, law enforcement and intelligence officials need flexibility in prosecuting the war on terror. Obama points to his administration's successes in eliminating Osama bin Laden and radical Islamic cleric 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 bill would require that the military take custody of a suspect deemed to be a member of al-Qaida or its affiliates who is involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States, with an exemption for U.S. citizens.
Responding to appeals from Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller, lawmakers added a provision that says nothing in the bill will affect "existing criminal enforcement and national security authorities of the FBI or any other domestic law enforcement agency" with regard to a captured suspect, "regardless of whether such ... person is held in military custody."
The bill also says the president can waive the provision based on national security. Originally that authority rested with the defense secretary.
House and Senate negotiators dropped several of the provisions in the House bill that also had drawn a veto threat, including the requirement of military tribunals for all cases.
"We took significant steps to address the administration's concerns," Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the House panel, told reporters.
The legislation would deny suspected terrorists, even U.S. citizens seized within the nation's borders, the right to trial and subject them to indefinite detention. The lawmakers made no changes to that language.
Civil rights groups still pressed for a presidential veto.
"The sponsors of the bill monkeyed around with a few minor details, but all of the core dangers remain – the bill authorizes the president to order the military to indefinitely imprison without charge or trial American citizens and others found far from any battlefield, even in the United States itself. The bill strikes at the very heart of American values," Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "Based on suspicion alone, no place and no person are off-limits to military detention without charge or trial."
The bill would go after foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran's central bank by 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 petroleum penalties would only apply if the president, in six months, 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. It also allows the president to waive the penalties based on national security.
In a reflection of the uneasy relationship between the United States and Pakistan, the bill would freeze some $700 million in assistance until Pakistan comes up with a strategy to deal with improvised explosive devices.