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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

General Alarm at New Detention Law

MANHATTAN (CN) - Human rights groups and civil libertarians are skeptical of White House assurances that President Obama's signing of the National Defense Authorization Act will not lead to the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens.

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2012 writes a $662 billion check to the Pentagon, in a 500-plus-page document that grants the executive branch the power to indefinitely detain any person it accuses of being a terrorist without charge or trial. President Obama signed the bill on New Year's Eve.

During congressional debate, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who co-sponsored the bill, said the Obama administration instructed him to keep U.S. citizens subject to the detention statutes.

In a signing statement on Dec. 31, Obama claimed to oppose these provisions, and expressed "serious reservations" about indefinite detention without trial, an authority he vowed not to enforce on U.S. citizens.

"The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it," Obama wrote in the signing statement. "In particular, I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists. ... 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."

Amnesty International ridiculed his comments, stating that "Trust Me" does not mitigate the law's "dangerous" expansion of executive power.

"Once any government has the authority to hold people indefinitely, the risk is that it can be almost impossible to rein such power in. President Obama has failed to take the one action - a veto - that would have blocked the dangerous provisions in the NDAA," Amnesty said in a statement. "In so doing, he has allowed human rights to be further undermined and given Al Qaeda a propaganda victory."

In a telephone interview, a senior attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights told Courthouse News that the NDAA will keep Guantanamo detainees already cleared for release behind bars by forcing the Secretary of Defense to "ensure that someone who is released cannot hurt the U.S. at any time in the future."

"You can see how that is a metaphysical impossibility," said Wells Dixon, who represents Guantanamo detainees.

An Obama administration-ordered report by the Guantanamo Review Task Force found that 89 of the 171 foreign citizens held in Guantanamo have been cleared unanimously by the CIA, FBI, NSC and Defense Department, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Unlike the Bush administration, Dixon said, the Obama White House will not disclose whether his clients have been deemed safe for release.

"That information was routinely available to the public under Bush," said Dixon, who said that the names of those cleared previously were published on the Department of Defense website.

Not a single prisoner has been released since Jan. 7, 2011, Dixon said.

On that date, Obama signed that year's defense appropriations bill with a similar statement vowing to oppose provisions preventing detainee transfers.

"He has retreated on every issue related to Guantanamo," Dixon said. "I don't think that he has the courage of his convictions."

Even if Obama keeps his word, the nonbinding signing statement has no effect on future presidents.

"He's not going to be president forever," Dixon said. "The signing statement is not a substitute for modification or repeal of these terrible provisions."

On Tuesday, the Occupy Wall Street movement protested the NDAA in demonstrations starting at noon in front of the main branch of the New York Public Library. Activists held tombstone-shaped signs marked "Bill of Rights Killed in the Line of Duty" and "Here Lies Due Process."

During a press conference, camouflage-suited activists staged mock military abductions, draping black hoods over their colleagues' heads and dragging them away from the entrance of the library.

Although the display drew giggles, the speakers said that the scenario was not a joke.

Mark Taylor of the National Lawyers Guild said that U.S. soldiers had become a common sight at nearby Grand Central Station, where protesters gathered later in the day. He said they were there to "normalize" military presence, rather than protect the public.

National Guard Bureau chief Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff the day the NDAA was signed, for the first time in the Guard's history, according to the military.com website and other reports.

One speaker at the Occupy press conference, James Owens of the New York Committee to Stop FBI Repression, cited statistics illustrating the danger of indefinitely detaining suspects.

"What does it mean to be a suspect?" Owens asked.

Citing ACLU statistics, Owen said "hundreds" of people accused of terrorism have had charges dropped in recent years. In 2007, another ACLU report, "No Real Threat," revealed that tens of thousands of activists were included in a Pentagon database.

Taylor, the National Lawyers Guild attorney, urged people to defend their "endangered" rights.

"This is a time we desperately need to stand up for those rights or we will lose them," Taylor said.

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