POLITICS
05/25/2014 11:05 am ET | Updated May 26, 2014

Civil Liberties Endure Nightmarish Week In Congress

Before heading home this Memorial Day weekend to honor those Americans who fought and died for the principle of liberty, Congress did a number on the basic rights that define that liberty: Guantanamo remains open, Americans are still subject to indefinite detention, our endless wars abroad still have an open-ended legal basis, the NSA will keep spying on us, and the lawyer who said U.S. citizens are legitimate drone targets was just confirmed to a lifetime federal judgeship.

The most significant congressional move: the annual defense budget authorization bill that passed the House on Thursday. Or as House Armed Services Chairman Howard P. "Buck" McKeon modestly called it, the Howard P. "Buck" McKeon National Defense Authorization Act.

The defense bill sets the parameters for the military's spending in the next fiscal year, and also lays out policies on how that money will be spent. President Barack Obama has been pleading with Congress for years for more maneuvering room to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. The House again shot him down.

More broadly, the war on terror still has no end in sight, thanks to the House's vote against an amendment that would have repealed the post-9/11 law authorizing the use of military force against al Qaeda. Since its initial passage, the law has been stretched so far beyond its original scope that the administration is nervous about continuing to rely on it. The Authorization for Use of Military Force is so old that it's currently being used to justify drone strikes against militants who weren't even in their teens when 9/11 happened. The law is now likely to remain on the books for another year.

The House also killed a push to repeal part of a previous defense bill that permits the military to detain indefinitely those individuals it suspects of terrorism. Legal challenges on the constitutionality of that part of the law failed in the Supreme Court last month. Congress' continued insistence on indefinite detention leaves considerable power in the hands of the military.

The House also passed something called the USA Freedom Act on Thursday, which is intended to rein in the NSA. In October Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the most vociferous opponents of mass surveillance, warned that the "business-as-usual brigade" would try to ensure "that any surveillance reforms are only skin deep."

The business-as-usual brigade won a round: Any meaningful civil liberties protections in the House's bill were so watered down in the end that Wyden has come out in opposition to it. Privacy advocates are now placing their hopes in a Senate version of the bill that hasn't been subject to pressure from the White House and spy agencies.

Meanwhile, the Senate voted Thursday to confirm David Barron to a lifetime post on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, overcoming bipartisan opposition for legal memos he authored while serving in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.

The White House worked for weeks to build support for Barron, who was ultimately opposed by all Republicans and two moderate Democrats. A group of Senate liberals and conservatives had vowed to block his confirmation unless the administration released more of Barron’s drone-related legal analyses, including a key 2011 memo that provided the legal basis for using drone strikes against Americans abroad. The Justice Department announced earlier this week that it wouldn't block the release of that document.

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