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Obama Reverses Himself: Administration Won't Veto 'Global Battlefield' Indefinite Detentions Measure

President Obama is expected to sign a defense policy bill allowing the military to arrest and indefinitely hold terrorism suspects -- even Americans arrested on U.S. soil.

The Obama administration Tuesday reversed itself and said it would not veto a major 2012 defense bill that expands the American military’s authority to arrest suspected terrorists anywhere in the world—including Americans on U.S. soil—and hold them indefinitely without charge or the right to a civilian trial.

“We have concluded that the [defense bill’s] language does not challenge or constrain the President’s ability to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the American people,” Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a written statement. “The President’s senior advisers will not recommend a veto.”

Only two weeks ago Carney told reporters that Obama stood by his veto threat. The reversal by the White House will now subject the president to an unprecedented lobbying campaign by retired generals, intelligence officers, and myriad civil rights organizations to reject the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.

“If President Obama signs this bill, it will damage both his legacy and American’s reputation for upholding the rule of law,” said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “The last time Congress passed indefinite detention legislation was during the McCarthy era and President Truman had the courage to veto that bill. We hope that the president will consider the long view of history before codifying indefinite detention without charge or trial.”

The 1,844-page conference committee report was passed by the House 283-136 on Wednesday night and now goes to the Senate where an earlier version passed 93-7. While dealing with innumerable aspects of military policy, its counterterrorism section states that the entire world, including American soil, is a battlefield in the war on terror. It expands the U.S. military’s authority to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone, even citizens, suspected of aiding terrorists.

“This is a worldwide authority provision,” said Christopher Anders, the ACLU’s senior legislative counsel. “No corner of the world is off limits… With United States citizens, the hope would be that there would be constitutional protections that would apply. But that kind of challenge is still very uncertain under U.S. law, and it would take years [for such litigation] to work its way through the courts.

In a press briefing earlier this week, Anders and top attorneys from Human Rights First, Human Rights Watch, and the National Security Network explained the implications of the defense policy bill heading toward President Obama’s desk. The legislation does not fund troops fighting in America's overseas conflicts; that is another bill also heading to his desk.

In sum, the very policies that candidate Obama pledged to end by closing the military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he is now not only supporting, but expanding onto U.S. soil, the civil rights lawyers said. Besides giving the military authority for indefinite detention without trying suspects, the bill would require military detention for many terrorism suspects. And it would all but ban transferring any exonerated prisoners from Guantanamo, where 88 of the 171 prisoners held there have been cleared of terrorist involvement.

“It would, if enacted into law, significantly change the way the U.S. approaches detentions in a so-called ‘law of war’ context,” Andrea Parsow of Human Rights Watch said, concluding it would lead to the expansion of Guantanamo, not its closure. The legislation envisions the military’s role in current and future conflicts.

Other experts, such as Heather Hurlburt, National Security Network executive director, said no one in senior national security or domestic law enforcement positions—including the FBI director, CIA director, National Intelligence director, and Secretary of Defense—wanted the military detention authority in the bill, and national security officials repeatedly told Senate and House Armed Services Committee members that the provisions were unworkable.

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