Start Out the New Year with Indefinite Detention

Happy New Year! No way to start the New Year out right than new detainee provisions formalizing indefinite detention.

Here is the part of Obama’s signing statement for the Defense Authorization that pertains to the most onerous parts of the detainee provisions, with my comments.

Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists that allows us to maximize both our ability to collect intelligence and to incapacitate dangerous individuals in rapidly developing situations, and the results we have achieved are undeniable.

Shorter Obama: we were prepared to continue indefinitely detaining people based on my Executive Order until they die off. What’s wrong with that?

Our success against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents has derived in significant measure from providing our counterterrorism professionals with the clarity and flexibility they need to adapt to changing circumstances and to utilize whichever authorities best protect the American people, and our accomplishments have respected the values that make our country an example for the world.

Against that record of success, some in Congress continue to insist upon restricting the options available to our counterterrorism professionals and interfering with the very operations that have kept us safe.

This is a fair point, one that he should have made much more strongly when this bill (now law) was being debated. A little fear-mongering would have been nice too.

My Administration has consistently opposed such measures. Ultimately, I decided to sign this bill not only because of the critically important services it provides for our forces and their families and the national security programs it authorizes, but also because the Congress revised provisions that otherwise would have jeopardized the safety, security, and liberty of the American people. Moving forward, my Administration will interpret and implement the provisions described below in a manner that best preserves the flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded.

Section 1021 affirms the executive branch’s authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then.

Apparently, Obama has been reading “associated forces” into the AUMF for the last three years. I guess that’s why AQAP members, who weren’t covered by the AUMF, are dead.

Two critical limitations in section 1021 confirm that it solely codifies established authorities. First, under section 1021(d), the bill does not “limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” Second, under section 1021(e), the bill may not be construed to affect any “existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” My Administration strongly supported the inclusion of these limitations in order to make clear beyond doubt that the legislation does nothing more than confirm authorities that the Federal courts have recognized as lawful under the 2001 AUMF.

Note, this statement can be read both ways: not just to say that indefinite detention is not new (which it’s not, and which I’ve been saying for some time), but also that anything they claim the courts have recognized as lawful–like the use of deadly force while purportedly trying to detain someone–remains lawful.

Moreover, I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. [my emphasis]

At one level, it’s nice to see Obama affirming that he won’t indefinitely detain us in military custody. Partly, though, Obama is still signing a law that President Mitt or Newt or Santorum could–and would–use to indefinitely detain Americans. As I said, “Vote for me, or President Newt will indefinitely detain you.”

But Obama isn’t even making that campaign promise! Note the trick here. Section 1021 pertains to all indefinite detention, not just military detention. But Obama only promises not to put Americans into indefinite military detention. I guess promising that Americans wouldn’t be indefinitely detained, period, was too much of a stretch.

My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.

Remember, “other applicable law” includes Scott v. Harris, which authorizes the use of deadly force when you’re pretending to try to detain someone.

Section 1022 seeks to require military custody for a narrow category of non-citizen detainees who are “captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” This section is ill-conceived and will do nothing to improve the security of the United States. The executive branch already has the authority to detain in military custody those members of al-Qa’ida who are captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the AUMF, and as Commander in Chief I have directed the military to do so where appropriate. I reject any approach that would mandate military custody where law enforcement provides the best method of incapacitating a terrorist threat. While section 1022 is unnecessary and has the potential to create uncertainty, I have signed the bill because I believe that this section can be interpreted and applied in a manner that avoids undue harm to our current operations.

A month ago, I noted that Obama had ways of maintaining civilian primacy without vetoing this bill. This section makes it sound like he agrees.

I have concluded that section 1022 provides the minimally acceptable amount of flexibility to protect national security. Specifically, I have signed this bill on the understanding that section 1022 provides the executive branch with broad authority to determine how best to implement it, and with the full and unencumbered ability to waive any military custody requirement, including the option of waiving appropriate categories of cases when doing so is in the national security interests of the United States. [my emphasis]

The Republicans are going to go nuts about this passage–not only is Obama saying the waiver is minimally restrictive on him, but he’s also saying he will exempt “appropriate categories of cases” from presumptive military detention. That may well include “anyone captured in the US.” Let’s hope so.

As my Administration has made clear, the only responsible way to combat the threat al-Qa’ida poses is to remain relentlessly practical, guided by the factual and legal complexities of each case and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system. Otherwise, investigations could be compromised, our authorities to hold dangerous individuals could be jeopardized, and intelligence could be lost. I will not tolerate that result, and under no circumstances will my Administration accept or adhere to a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention. I will therefore interpret and implement section 1022 in the manner that best preserves the same flexible approach that has served us so well for the past 3 years and that protects the ability of law enforcement professionals to obtain the evidence and cooperation they need to protect the Nation.

Nothing I disagree with in this section. Though, again, it’d be nice to have seen the Administration make this argument at more length–while invoking the danger of following the Republican approach–before the bill was passed.

This statement is precisely what I expected. A belated defense of civilian law. And an attempt–one even more timid than I imagined–to pretend that Obama objects to the principle of indefinite detention, even including the possibility of indefinite civilian detention for American citizens.

I’ve put the full signing statement below the rule.


Today I have signed into law H.R. 1540, the “National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012.” I have signed the Act chiefly because it authorizes funding for the defense of the United States and its interests abroad, crucial services for service members and their families, and vital national security programs that must be renewed. In hundreds of separate sections totaling over 500 pages, the Act also contains critical Administration initiatives to control the spiraling health care costs of the Department of Defense (DoD), to develop counterterrorism initiatives abroad, to build the security capacity of key partners, to modernize the force, and to boost the efficiency and effectiveness of military operations worldwide.

The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it. In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists. Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists that allows us to maximize both our ability to collect intelligence and to incapacitate dangerous individuals in rapidly developing situations, and the results we have achieved are undeniable. Our success against al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents has derived in significant measure from providing our counterterrorism professionals with the clarity and flexibility they need to adapt to changing circumstances and to utilize whichever authorities best protect the American people, and our accomplishments have respected the values that make our country an example for the world.

Against that record of success, some in Congress continue to insist upon restricting the options available to our counterterrorism professionals and interfering with the very operations that have kept us safe. My Administration has consistently opposed such measures. Ultimately, I decided to sign this bill not only because of the critically important services it provides for our forces and their families and the national security programs it authorizes, but also because the Congress revised provisions that otherwise would have jeopardized the safety, security, and liberty of the American people. Moving forward, my Administration will interpret and implement the provisions described below in a manner that best preserves the flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded.

Section 1021 affirms the executive branch’s authority to detain persons covered by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note). This section breaks no new ground and is unnecessary. The authority it describes was included in the 2001 AUMF, as recognized by the Supreme Court and confirmed through lower court decisions since then. Two critical limitations in section 1021 confirm that it solely codifies established authorities. First, under section 1021(d), the bill does not “limit or expand the authority of the President or the scope of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” Second, under section 1021(e), the bill may not be construed to affect any “existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.” My Administration strongly supported the inclusion of these limitations in order to make clear beyond doubt that the legislation does nothing more than confirm authorities that the Federal courts have recognized as lawful under the 2001 AUMF. Moreover, I want to clarify that my Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a Nation. My Administration will interpret section 1021 in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.

Section 1022 seeks to require military custody for a narrow category of non-citizen detainees who are “captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the Authorization for Use of Military Force.” This section is ill-conceived and will do nothing to improve the security of the United States. The executive branch already has the authority to detain in military custody those members of al-Qa’ida who are captured in the course of hostilities authorized by the AUMF, and as Commander in Chief I have directed the military to do so where appropriate. I reject any approach that would mandate military custody where law enforcement provides the best method of incapacitating a terrorist threat. While section 1022 is unnecessary and has the potential to create uncertainty, I have signed the bill because I believe that this section can be interpreted and applied in a manner that avoids undue harm to our current operations.

I have concluded that section 1022 provides the minimally acceptable amount of flexibility to protect national security. Specifically, I have signed this bill on the understanding that section 1022 provides the executive branch with broad authority to determine how best to implement it, and with the full and unencumbered ability to waive any military custody requirement, including the option of waiving appropriate categories of cases when doing so is in the national security interests of the United States. As my Administration has made clear, the only responsible way to combat the threat al-Qa’ida poses is to remain relentlessly practical, guided by the factual and legal complexities of each case and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each system. Otherwise, investigations could be compromised, our authorities to hold dangerous individuals could be jeopardized, and intelligence could be lost. I will not tolerate that result, and under no circumstances will my Administration accept or adhere to a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention. I will therefore interpret and implement section 1022 in the manner that best preserves the same flexible approach that has served us so well for the past 3 years and that protects the ability of law enforcement professionals to obtain the evidence and cooperation they need to protect the Nation.

My Administration will design the implementation procedures authorized by section 1022(c) to provide the maximum measure of flexibility and clarity to our counterterrorism professionals permissible under law. And I will exercise all of my constitutional authorities as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief if those procedures fall short, including but not limited to seeking the revision or repeal of provisions should they prove to be unworkable.

Sections 1023-1025 needlessly interfere with the executive branch’s processes for reviewing the status of detainees. Going forward, consistent with congressional intent as detailed in the Conference Report, my Administration will interpret section 1024 as granting the Secretary of Defense broad discretion to determine what detainee status determinations in Afghanistan are subject to the requirements of this section.

Sections 1026-1028 continue unwise funding restrictions that curtail options available to the executive branch. Section 1027 renews the bar against using appropriated funds for fiscal year 2012 to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the United States for any purpose. I continue to oppose this provision, which intrudes upon critical executive branch authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and the circumstances of each case and our national security interests. For decades, Republican and Democratic administrations have successfully prosecuted hundreds of terrorists in Federal court. Those prosecutions are a legitimate, effective, and powerful tool in our efforts to protect the Nation. Removing that tool from the executive branch does not serve our national security. Moreover, this intrusion would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles.

Section 1028 modifies but fundamentally maintains unwarranted restrictions on the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country. This hinders the executive’s ability to carry out its military, national security, and foreign relations activities and like section 1027, would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers. In the event that the statutory restrictions in sections 1027 and 1028 operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will interpret them to avoid the constitutional conflict.

Section 1029 requires that the Attorney General consult with the Director of National Intelligence and Secretary of Defense prior to filing criminal charges against or seeking an indictment of certain individuals. I sign this based on the understanding that apart from detainees held by the military outside of the United States under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the provision applies only to those individuals who have been determined to be covered persons under section 1022 before the Justice Department files charges or seeks an indictment. Notwithstanding that limitation, this provision represents an intrusion into the functions and prerogatives of the Department of Justice and offends the longstanding legal tradition that decisions regarding criminal prosecutions should be vested with the Attorney General free from outside interference. Moreover, section 1029 could impede flexibility and hinder exigent operational judgments in a manner that damages our security. My Administration will interpret and implement section 1029 in a manner that preserves the operational flexibility of our counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals, limits delays in the investigative process, ensures that critical executive branch functions are not inhibited, and preserves the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice.

Other provisions in this bill above could interfere with my constitutional foreign affairs powers. Section 1244 requires the President to submit a report to the Congress 60 days prior to sharing any U.S. classified ballistic missile defense information with Russia. Section 1244 further specifies that this report include a detailed description of the classified information to be provided. While my Administration intends to keep the Congress fully informed of the status of U.S. efforts to cooperate with the Russian Federation on ballistic missile defense, my Administration will also interpret and implement section 1244 in a manner that does not interfere with the President’s constitutional authority to conduct foreign affairs and avoids the undue disclosure of sensitive diplomatic communications. Other sections pose similar problems. Sections 1231, 1240, 1241, and 1242 could be read to require the disclosure of sensitive diplomatic communications and national security secrets; and sections 1235, 1242, and 1245 would interfere with my constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by directing the Executive to take certain positions in negotiations or discussions with foreign governments. Like section 1244, should any application of these provisions conflict with my constitutional authorities, I will treat the provisions as non-binding.

My Administration has worked tirelessly to reform or remove the provisions described above in order to facilitate the enactment of this vital legislation, but certain provisions remain concerning. My Administration will aggressively seek to mitigate those concerns through the design of implementation procedures and other authorities available to me as Chief Executive and Commander in Chief, will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future, and will seek the repeal of any provisions that undermine the policies and values that have guided my Administration throughout my time in office.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

14 replies
  1. rugger9 says:

    How long until someone challenges this in court? Is there a way to challenge without having someone disappeared?

  2. Peterr says:

    @rugger9:

    With regard to your second question, no.

    To switch to a different crime to illustrate the point, you can’t bring a case if the police beat up your neighbor — only your neighbor can bring that case.

    Similarly, you can’t bring a case if you fear the police might beat you tomorrow — only if they have already beaten you.

    Actual harm has to have happened, and it has to have happened to you.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Peterr: @rugger9: RE my follow-up post, I would bet O’s signing statement on Section 1024 gets challenged right away. There are already cases from Bagram detainees pending, and it’s fairly clear that Congress’ intent is to give them more meaningful reviews (even aside from the fact that the Admin’s argument on why they’re not getting them is bunk).

  4. joanneleon says:

    Thanks for the quick response to this, Marcy. And Happy New Year. bmaz called this one the other day — that they would want to put the NDAA signing news as far under the radar as possible by sending it out with the New Year’s Eve trash dump.

    I was happy to see the statement about detention of American citizens. But I figured it would be broadly interpreted by those who read it and especially by apologists.

    Questions: Q1: If he is definitely saying that his administration won’t have American citizens detained by the military, and you are saying this doesn’t mean Americans couldn’t be detained indefinitely, are you saying indefinite detention could happen within the US court system? Sorry if I am being naive here. But what is a scenario for how that would occur? I assume it means being picked up by the FBI for interrogation. Where would the detainee be held and can they hold you with no hearing, etc. outside of the court system?

    Q2: al Awlaki and other American citizens were assassinated using the very detention authorities that were just codified, right? So if Obama is saying that he will not allow our military to indefinitely detain American citizens, well, how can he say that? He just killed some using those very authorities. Is he saying, in effect, ‘I won’t let our military detain you indefinitely but I will let our military assassinate you?’

    Q3: I guess I should have known the answer to this question a long time ago but, even if Obama says our military won’t detain American citizens “indefinitely” does that mean they could detain us for a time that is shorter than “indefinitely”? I wonder how long they could detain (and interrogate) citizens while still staying with in the “indefinitely” parameters. In other words, I am wondering if they could still detain American citizens for as long as suits their needs and then hand them over to a tribunal or the courts, and still stay within the law.

    Happy New Year, Marcy, bmaz, Jim and all intrepid emptywheel commenters. You’re the best.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon:

    Q1: One of the reasons I’m not all that comforted by the “military” thing is bc O is increasingly holding people, sometimes secretly, w/o charging them, getting them to waive presentment, sometimes via what appear to be threats to their family. So they held Faisal Shahzad for 2 weeks, Arbabsiar for 10 days, Warsame for 2 months, and there are others they’ve held as well. So on its face, the modification using “military” should mean it won’t happen, but there are far too many loopholes here.

    Q2: Well, except CIA pressed the button, right? CIA is option 3, not military but not civilian, exactly, either.

    Q3: Dunno. As I’ve said, I think O is more interested in killing Americans than detaining them. And as I’ve also said, I think he’s also interested in pushing Miranda and other things so as to get people for an extended but limited time.

  6. joanneleon says:

    @emptywheel Thanks for your response.

    I don’t feel any better about this than I did two weeks ago. I also don’t feel like we have many answers to the concerns that were laid out. The only positive thing that I can even come up with out of this whole NDAA thing is that more people are now aware of these detention policies and it may have gotten more people thinking about things. That’s about all I can come up with. But that is cold comfort because the new problem is that a lot of people are spreading information that says in effect: American citizens cannot be indefinitely detained without due process and all of the concerns of the ACLU, et al, have been debunked.

    I wasn’t even thinking about the CIA. If he reserves the right to use detention authorities to have the CIA detain and/or kill American citizens while declaring that his administration will not have the military indefinitely detaining American citizens with no due process, I find that to be incredibly dishonest. Deceitful, in fact.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: Agree, it’s important that people are paying attention. That’s why I’ve gone against my practice to engage on twitter.

    That said, I don’t think O wants to indef detain Americans, CIA or DOJ. He does want flexibility, though, and doesn’t want to have to release those detained improperly (like Latif). But he does want to ensure that all the authority based on detention is not touched.

  8. Bob Schacht says:

    Before reading all the way through, my immediate reaction to the first block quote is that it was not immediately book-ended with the balancing Constitutional argument. At least the third block quote, first paragraph, last line, pays lip service to the values upon which our country was founded.

    Bob in AZ

  9. Bob Schacht says:

    I will therefore interpret and implement section 1022 in the manner that best preserves the same flexible approach that has served us so well for the past 3 years and that protects the ability of law enforcement professionals to obtain the evidence and cooperation they need to protect the Nation.

    You can see the priorities here. Nothing about protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States, is there?

    Bob in AZ

  10. P J Evans says:

    @Bob Schacht:
    How did he pass Con law: did he just BS his way through? Because I expect someone who’s supposed to be good in Con law to know this stuff a lot better, and be a lot more wary of the arguments and justifications being put forward for ignoring the Bill of Rights and every other part of the document they can find a way around.

  11. Bob Schacht says:

    @P J Evans: My guess to that is that Obama has a rather different take on the Constitution than we do. I think he got an eyeful of how long it was that the landed gentry used the Constitution to exclude Blacks and other People of Color, women, and others from exercising their rights, or even *having* any rights. In other words, I think Obama has looked in more detail at how the Constitution has been used (and abused), and he has drawn a different lesson from it than we might. That perspective has a point, but ISTM our Constitution is really at the center of whatever Exceptionalism America has.

    Bob in AZ

  12. joanneleon says:

    @emptywheel: Again, cold comfort that his administration has no desire to detain Americans because it is a virtual guarantee that now that this is encoded into law there will be other administration who will want to do it and now he’s signed a law that will allow them to do it. I do hope that Feinstein is able to get a bill through that straightens it out.

Comments are closed.