The NDAA Debate: What It Means, and Why it Matters
by Amanda Fox-Rouch | Hunter College
On the last day of 2011, President Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA).
This alone is hardly an unusual occurrence; the National Defense Authorization Act itself has been signed into law every year for nearly the past fifty. One of its main objectives is to allow the government to continue funding national security interests and the military for the next fiscal year.
This year’s bill, however, was different. One of the provisions included in the 2012 NDAA is one that allows for American citizens suspected of terrorism to be indefinitely detained in military custody without charge or trial. As Pfc. Bradley Manning begins the pre-trial hearing process after nearly 18 months of being held in military detention, the president has just signed into law a bill that will allow the military to treat American civilians in a similar fashion if they are suspected of conducting activities related to domestic terrorism.
The Obama administration had threatened to veto the bill as long as it contained the indefinite detention provision, but changed course shortly before the final version was voted on by Congress.
In a letter to the public released following the signing of the document, Obama explained why he signed the bill with the indefinite detention provision attached to it. He states that his signature on the bill is necessary to continue funding for military and national security interests. Of the indefinite detention provision, he says that the version of the bill he signed had been revised to eliminate any provisions that would threaten the freedom of American citizens.
Legal scholar Jonathan Turley purports that despite what Obama says in his statement, the revisions made to the bill were merely rhetorical in nature, and that it ultimately provides the military with “extraordinary powers” to detain American citizens without providing them with a fair trial. Despite what Obama has said on the topic, Turley says that the powers imparted to the military and the Obama administration by way of this bill are cause for concern.
This is amplified by the fact that American citizens who are being investigated for being suspected of terrorism cannot inform others about the investigation without facing prosecution as per provisions of the PATRIOT Act. Coupled with the NDAA, a citizen wrongly suspected of terrorist activities could now theoretically be held in military detention for months without trial, and be released only to be restricted from taking legal action against his captors.
The implications of this legislation reflect the idea that certain liberties and freedoms must be sacrificed in the name of protecting the country from further terrorist attacks — a notion that is widely disputed by various groups concerned with civil liberties.
The signing of this year’s NDAA has been decried in a statement released by the ACLU, which says that the bill “…violates international law because it is not limited to people captured in the context of an actual armed conflict as required by the laws of war.”
This, and the broader topic of how to preserve liberty while countering possible terrorist threats, will surely be a major question for the contenders of the 2012 election to handle. The discussion prompted by the signing of the NDAA touches upon the contentious issue of how the U.S. government is expected to respect the Bill of Rights while maintaining the country’s security by diffusing threats in a preventative manner.
One of the other provisions of the bill is said to make the closing of Guantanamo Bay more difficult, as it restricts the transfer of cleared detainees from the facility for resettlement and repatriation purposes.
Overall, the signing of the NDAA leaves us with the impression that the current president has shown few significant differences from the Bush administration in terms of post-9/11 national security policy. The PATRIOT Act was renewed by Obama earlier this year, the Guantanamo Bay detention center remains open, and now the recently-signed NDAA has extended the powers of the military to include the detainment of American citizens indefinitely without trial.Amanda Fox-Rouch is currently a student pursuing an undergraduate Political Science degree at Hunter College in New York City. She is interested in the stories of those who are typically silenced by the selectivity of the mainstream media. Find her on Twitter @afoxrouch.