Officers in the U.S. military should never have the authority to patrol the nation's streets and lock up people they suspect of being terrorists, at will, for life.
President Barack Obama should keep his promise to veto the defense bill the Senate passed Thursday night if, after reconciliation with the House version, it includes the frightening amendment allowing the military to imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial - indeed, without even letting them talk to a lawyer. It is an insult to our nation's values - the kind of thing we protest when it happens in China and other dictatorships.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has courageously lead the opposition to the amendment. As chair of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee, she has strong national security credentials. But this, she recognizes, is an affront to Americans' basic respect for due process.
Feinstein compares it to legislation that permitted the government to lock up Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. U.S. leaders must never forget that racially charged injustice that also was made in the name of national security.
"We are not a nation that locks up its citizens without charge, prosecution and conviction," Feinstein said.
Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, and Republican Sen. John McCain are leading the charge to repeat history.
They assume military officers always will fairly assess
individuals' intent, will be immune to racism and will never overreach with this broad authority to lock people away without having to prove anything. Certainly no community would want local police to have this ability, no matter how professional the force. Even many members of the armed forces are balking at the notion of serving as police, judges and juries.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., tried to inject some sense into the debate. He proposed striking the detention provision from this defense bill and writing a separate detention bill within 90 days after conferring with the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department and the Department of Defense. But his proposal, supported by Feinstein, failed 61-37.
Nor has Congress heeded Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former CIA director, White House chief of staff and member of Congress. The highly respected Panetta says the current bill could "needlessly complicate efforts by front-line law enforcement professionals to collect critical intelligence concerning operations and activities within the United States." Taking suspects into military custody could hinder the FBI from using its counterterrorism tools, he argues.
Levin and McCain haven't made a compelling case that detaining suspected terrorists indefinitely is essential to national security, let alone worth the violence it would do to cherished civil rights that set us apart from totalitarian states. Obama, with his veto, can renew our commitment to preserving individual freedoms.