Editorial: Defense Authorization Act Reminds Nation of Past Mistakes
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law the last day of 2011, legalizes military detainment of civilians— including citizens of the United States—without time limitations or rights of trial. Considering the threat these provisions pose to economic well-being and civil rights, the bill invites comparison to the convoluted and illiberal piece of legislation that was the USA Patriot Act of 2001.
Less than eleven years ago, in response to 9/11, Congress passed the so-called Patriot Act to remove potential obstacles to the investigation of terrorism, allowing enforcement agencies to wiretap phone calls, the Secretary of the Treasury to oversee private financial transactions, and immigrant authorities to deport “suspicious persons.”
But its privacy-violating efforts to defeat terrorism were ultimately ineffective, as the vast majority of the “sneak and peek” searches it authorized targeted ordinary crime and drug trade rather than terrorist acts. Instead of protecting the American people, the bill funded a costly expansion of federal power.
Now our government is proving itself a repeat offender, appropriating $670 billion to the Defense Department for the fiscal year of 2012 to finance similarly unconstitutional measures. Destined to dig the government further into debt and trample on citizens’ rights all in the name of security, the Defense Authorization Act resembles our mistake of just over a decade ago.
The bill calls for massive expenditure at a time when we can least afford it.
“Despite severe cutbacks throughout the government and the lowest revenue levels in years, this legislation sets a defense spending level that is twice as high as [that of] the rest of the world,” says Rep. Anna Eshoo of California’s District 14, who voted against the law last month. “In order to be serious about fiscal responsibility, Congress has to take a much harder look at the defense budget than this legislation reflects.”
Rep. Pete Stark from District 13 also cited financial concerns in his decision to vote against the Act. “It is our job to spend taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently,” he says. “When it comes to defense, we have failed miserably. [This level of spending] is more than just negligent; it is malicious.”
“This legislation prioritizes military spending over economic stability and the health of our people,” he warned.
While government officials like Eshoo and Stark rightfully worry about the financial ramifications of the Act, the bulk of media and public attention focuses on a matter of equal importance: the danger the bill presents to citizens’ freedom.
Though vague wording cloaks its more objectionable clauses, the Act does clearly allow for the military detention of foreigners and citizens abroad without a maximum time sentence or trial. This suspension of habeas corpus and increase in the influence of the nation’s armed forces are out of place in a free nation.
“I’m inextricably opposed to the concept of a military or quasi-military establishment holding individuals who are not combatants in a declared war without [habeas corpus],” says Alice Smith, a member of the ACLU Northern California’s board of directors who takes issue with the Act because she, “[believes] strongly in a system that entitles everyone to a fair and speedy trial.”
“Our constitution does not give the military the authority to act in place of our justice system,” agreed Rep. Stark.
Eshoo reminded Americans that the bill’s contravention of basic rights goes beyond the civilian detention clause. The Act also “effectively blocks the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba,” an institution that is “strategically counterproductive and offensive to our most closely-held American values.”
“It is one thing to have prisoner-of-war camps, where prisoners will be released at the end of the war, and are entitled to all the benefits of the Geneva Convention,” Smith says. “It is quite another thing to have Guantanamo concentration camps, where people are picked up and incarcerated on the basis of hearsay and fear.”
Despite the twofold, economic-and-rights-based argument against the Defense Act, its congressional backing transcends party boundaries, just as the Patriot Act initially attracted widespread bipartisan support in Washington.
The Senate passed the bill with an overwhelming majority: both California senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, voted in favor of the law, along with 96 of their peers, against only one dissenting voice in Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. The House approved it 283-136. And President Obama, despite threats of a veto, signed it into action last week, “[going] down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Although the President claimed his administration “will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” the standing problem of an open Guantanamo contrasts unfavorably with his campaign vows to close the offshore facility and safeguard individual rights in the fight against terrorism. While Obama drags out the complete shutdown he promised, 171 prisoners remain at the detention center, and the assault on civil liberties continues.