Boots, Bombs, B-52s -- and the Indefinite Detention of Americans: The Newest NDAA

The National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is the book of books when it comes to defense spending. And the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the first body in Congress to craft the annual defense bill into what will become passable legislation.
05/27/2016 03:49 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

From warheads to textbooks for young hopefuls at Annapolis -- from MRE sandwiches that can last two years in the Afghan desert to the decision about how many troops will go overseas -- the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is the book of books when it comes to defense spending. And the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is the first body in Congress to craft the annual defense bill into what will become passable legislation. The HASC met on Wednesday, April 27th to mark up the 2017 iteration of the NDAA.

The proposed bill, which was released that Monday by Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), authorizes the United States' $610 billion in defense spending, to be split between the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), or wartime funds, and base funds. But this annual authorizing of every missile, aircraft, soldier, and bullet never goes without scrutiny. The moment the bill was released members on both sides of the aisle were ready with proposed amendments. As the bill moves through Congress, as prior NDAAs show, it will likely see upwards of 100 changes. Here's a look at the most interesting of those proposals:

Base Closings: Ranking HASC Democrat Rep. Adam Smith from California spoke of the "complex threats" we face around the globe, but went on to say that bases could abruptly run out of cash:

"We do not have the money in the short term or the long term to meet all of those complex threats...that's why we are unwilling as a Congress to provide the money that is necessary..."

Defense News also reports that under this funding plan, halfway through the year, troops could suddenly run out of money. In the past, Congress has expanded funds -- as in 2008 -- but with the Budget Control Act now in place, military personnel could this time around face extreme cuts. It will be up to Congress to pass (and the President to sign off on) supplementary OCO funds.

In their defense spending plan, Democrats argue against leaving crucial military operations and lives in the hands of Congress. Smith (D-Calif.) proposed that if we are not going to raise taxes or repeal the Budget Control Act, that Congress should allow for a new round of base closures or BRAC. Base Realignment and Closures (BRAC) is a process used by the DOD to improve military efficiency after the Cold War. Smith offered his own BRAC plan but withdrew the amendment in the face of opposition. In the coming months, Democrats are sure to continue pushing for a BRAC plan.

Women and the Draft: When Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) proposed an amendment that would require women to register for the draft, he did so sardonically. As has been reported, Hunter is in fact against women in combat positions. As Hunter argued,

"I've talked to coffeehouse liberals in San Francisco and conservative families who pray three times a day. And neither group wants their daughter to be drafted."

His symbolic measure backfired when Democrats and a number of fellow Republicans actually voted this dramatic measure into the bill, which passed with a vote of 32-30. If the NDAA is passed in its current form, for the first time in American history, women will be required to register for the draft. Truly historic if this were to move ahead.

The Confederate Flag: Rep. Smith proposed an amendment that would prohibit the funding of military educational facilities which fly the confederate flag. This measure was aimed at the Citadel in South Carolina, where the state legislature has so far failed to vote to take this flag down. The amendment passed, but only with an exception protecting the Citadel.

Iraq and Syria: Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) proposed a three-year authorization on the use of military force against ISIS. The plan was withdrawn for procedural issues and will be reintroduced in the House. The Committee did pass an amendment requiring the Pentagon to define what actually constitutes a "defeated" ISIS, and it asks for language to define exactly what would be necessary to prevent a successor terrorist organization from taking the place of ISIS.

The Committee also passed cuts to funding for the training and arming of Syrian Rebels by the President. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced an amendment to stop this flow of funds completely, which would greatly mitigate the U.S. Military's role in Syria, but her provision was blocked by the Committee. Rep. Gabbard was one of only two Committee members to vote against the entire NDAA. The de factional in Syria continues in this version of the bill.

Aircraft and Arms: The Committee rejected many proposals regarding nuclear arms spending cuts. Those rejected proposals included Rep. Loretta Sanchez's (D-Calif.) amendment to cut $317 million in spending on nuclear arms. The voting records show little hope for any substantial change in US nuclear policy.

Some of the most heated debate arose when the Committee discussed fighter-jet models and Air Force spending. Those in favor of more planes won the day. The Committee rejected a plan to retire the aging Vietnam-era A-10 jet, revived a failed F-22 jet program, and approved a $95 million purchase of a single Northrop Grumman Triton drone.

Indefinite Detention: Finally, the 2017 NDAA reaffirms the right of the President to hold any US citizen indefinitely without charge or trial. Many critics see this as by far the most important and potentially devastating portion in the entire bill. The United State's continued funding and protection of indefinite detention has caused the acronym, NDAA, to be synonymous with anti-liberty in many circles. Since 2013, the bill has included language that alarms civil liberties groups and commentators. In the latest iteration, the controversial sections 1021 and 1022 are left unchanged. The sections read, "Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons." A "covered person" includes,

"a person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act..."

The law allows for "Detention under the law of war without trial until the end of the hostilities..."

Naomi Wolf warned in a 2012 article for the Guardian that in regards to American citizens, the NDAA destroys their due process rights and journalist Chris Hedges filed a lawsuit against this clause at that time. Under the act, anyone can be described as a 'belligerent' -and therefore subject to indefinite detention. Many other journalists also oppose this language. While supporters claim its use is intended for specific and necessary purposes, the text itself is difficult to reconcile with that reading. As attorney Glenn Greenwald notes, there is no getting around this essential "codification of indefinite detention" and complete attack on habeas corpus. The Committee rejected the measures to begin the closure of the U.S.'s Guantanamo Bay facility, as Congress has every year of the Obama presidency. Time is winding down on the President's promise to close the detention center.

The HASC passed the NDAA, and the vote was an almost unanimous 60-2. This bill has a long road ahead of it, as it goes through the Speaker Ryan's desk and on through the legislative process. Apart from the obvious outliers -- the ongoing unconstitutional attack on US citizens' due process, and the striking inclusion of the draft for women, this could be seen as a moderate bill.