WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to end the law that lets the military indefinitely detain people arrested in America on terrorism charges.
Ever since Congress passed the Authorization to Use Military Force against Al Qaeda and its allies after the 2001 attacks, the White House has asserted the authority to have the military seize suspected terrorists -- including Americans -- and detain them without trial as long as there is a war on terror.
That policy was enshrined in law with last year's National Defense Authorization Act, although President Barack Obama has issued rules barring authorities from detaining Americans.
But that is not good enough, said House lawmakers on Wednesday, vowing to push an amendment by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) to this year's National Defense Authorization Act that would expressly require any suspected terrorist caught in the United States or its territories to be tried in civilian courts.
"Hopefully we can be successful this week in clarifying this to make sure once and for all that we as a people don't endorse the whole notion -- which contradicts everything we should believe in -- that we could be arrested and put in secret prisons," said Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), lending his national status as a libertarian leader to the effort.
"If we don't change this, believe me, this country is in serious trouble," Paul said.
The complaint of the lawmakers and other opponents of indefinite detention is not just that it tramples on the constitutional right to a trial but also that it doesn't work.
"In the last 10 years, we have successfully prosecuted -- tried and convicted -- over 400 terrorists," Smith said. "Even as we sit here today, there are over 300 terrorists in U.S. prisons."
Smith argued that the authority to detain suspected terrorists captured in the United States was only invoked three times -- including the case of Brooklyn-born dirty bomb plotter Jose Padilla -- and dropped in all three in favor of deporting one suspect and trying the others in federal court.
"This authority that the president has has not been exercised in this country since 2003," Smith said. "The president does not need this authority to keep us safe."
But he added, "Leaving it on the books is an unnecessary threat to our civil liberties."
Paul also argued that the courts work better than the military system now being used, including in the recently begun trial of admitted 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
"If he had been tried the same way the terrorists were tried in '94, he may well have received the death penalty," Paul said, referring to the convictions of the first World Trade Center bombers.
"This whole idea of trying to get around the law becomes the issue, and this is what's happening now. You deny justice," Paul said.
"The system works. We should not be so intimidated," Paul said. "Yes, we have reason to be concerned by our foreign enemies, and our attacks, but we also ought to be concerned about what we do to ourselves. The American people aren't a guilty party, yet we as a people are being penalized by this irrational use of the judicial system."
Paul and Smith were joined by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) and John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a conservative and a liberal, who predicted that like-minded members would come along.
Still, Smith was unwilling to say if he thought the measure would pass.
Supporters of the existing law argue that terrorists should be treated like enemies and that it does not matter if they are citizens or captured in the United States. Smith and his colleagues, however, argued that the Constitution grants due process rights to "any person."
Debate and voting on the defense bill are expected to be wrapped up this week. The Senate will begin a closed-door mark-up of its version of the bill next Wednesday.Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.