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December 16, 2011 2:55 PM What the NDAA does

By Steve Benen

The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a $662 billion spending bill that finances the military, was the focus of a contentious fight in recent months, including a formal veto threat from the White House. This week, however, there was considerable movement, including 11th-hour changes to the language, the withdrawal of the veto threat, and passage of the bill in both the House and Senate. President Obama will, by all accounts, grudgingly sign it into law.

The question, then, isn’t whether the bill is disappointing. Rather, it’s appreciating just how disappointing it is.

Adam Serwer, who’s covered the ins and outs of the NDAA fight better than anyone, has a helpful piece today summarizing what the bill does (and just as importantly, what it doesn’t do).

[The NDAA] says that the president has to hold a foreign Al Qaeda suspect captured on US soil in military detention — except it leaves enough procedural loopholes that someone like convicted underwear bomber and Nigerian citizen Umar Abdulmutallab could actually go from capture to trial without ever being held by the military.

It does not, contrary to what many media outlets have reported, authorize the president to indefinitely detain without trial an American citizen suspected of terrorism who is captured in the US. A last minute compromise amendment adopted in the Senate, whose language was retained in the final bill, leaves it up to the courts to decide if the president has that power, should a future president try to exercise it. But if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won’t be based on the authority in this bill.

There’s been a fair amount of coverage this week, arguing that the bill, among things, empowers the executive branch “to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial.” Adam’s reporting shows otherwise.

This is not to say the NDAA is a good bill. In fact, as Adam explained, the bill’s language “writes into law an assumed role for the military in domestic counterterrorism that did not exist before,” and though this president and this administration appear to have no interest is using the law the way Republicans would like, we don’t know how future presidents may implement the same provisions.

But it’s not quite as outrageous as some reports have suggested.

I had one related thought about this. President Obama has been facing quite a bit of criticism from the left over the NDAA’s provisions, and that’s understandable. It’s pretty easy to make the case that the measure should have been vetoed.

That said, if I’m making a list of those responsible for the NDAA’s most odious measures, the White House wouldn’t be on top. I’d start, obviously, with congressional Republicans whose misguided worldview intended to make the NDAA even more offensive, but it was a whole lot of congressional Democrats who went along with them.

We’ve seen this problem before — most notably with the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay — where the president and his start off in a relatively good place in a national-security dispute, but end up in a much worse place because congressional Dems helped push them there.

Regardless, the NDAA is done. Recalling a phrase I’m sure I’ve used more than once this year, it’s bad, but it could have been worse.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • Gummo on December 16, 2011 3:03 PM:

    "Regardless, the NDAA is done. Recalling a phrase Iím sure Iíve used more than once this year, itís bad, but it could have been worse."

    You mean, instead of ripping the Constitution into fist-sized chunks, they could have shredded it and then pulped the remains?

  • said on December 16, 2011 3:10 PM:

    What Gummo said.

  • me on December 16, 2011 3:18 PM:

    two words of advice for the white house: signing statement.

  • Holmes on December 16, 2011 3:21 PM:

    This is on the cowardly Dems in congress. The Senate had a vote to take the detainee provisions out of the bill entirely, but too many voted with the Republicans.

    Even if Obama had maintained the veto, there were enough votes to override it, because the Democratic party has too many cowards(including the staunch liberals we all love so much) it it.

  • jon on December 16, 2011 3:22 PM:

    80-13 in the Senate. 287-136 in the House.

    And a veto would do what, exactly? Besides give cover for Republicans to say they had to overturn that so they couldn't get on to other things that are being considered at the moment?

  • ckelly on December 16, 2011 3:26 PM:

    Wow Steve, can you be any more mealy-mouthed? This is a horrendous bill, signifying ANOTHER complete 180 reversal from 2008 campaign rhetoric by this President. It's an abomination and I don't give a rat's ass if the Republicans are more culpable - they always are!

    this president and this administration appear to have no interest is using the law the way Republicans would like

    What possible basis do you have for saying this? This president and administration have adopted, extended and expanded every Bush-Cheney foreign policy, all the dodgey Executive privilege and power co-opted by Bush as well as continued a vicious assault on civil liberties. This is a real deal-breaker for me. God, we're a country of cowardly pussies.

  • Tom Nicholson on December 16, 2011 3:30 PM:

    The US military flies drones all over the planet, tracking us all.

    Don't for one minute, dispute this fact.

    A global defense positioning system is in place, ready to take on Occupyerrorists anywhere, anytime.

  • Josef K on December 16, 2011 3:38 PM:

    Wonder how quickly this mess would/will be reversed after a few Republican supporters are "disappeared".

  • tko on December 16, 2011 3:46 PM:

    Seems I prefer the Glenn Greenwald version of what Obama is about to sign into law as being slightly more truthful. Sort of like the claim made here that there was no deal to take the public option off the table by the White House. Daschle was so certain there was a deal, he put it in his book and he was an insider. Daschle backpedaled later, but the damage was done. Call it a Freudian slip in print. We criticize the Republicancers for rewriting history. Let's not do it in real time here. Obama will be the president overseeing and codifying the demise of habeas corpus.

  • John S. on December 16, 2011 3:56 PM:

    The Democrats are rife with cheerleaders for Don Quixote. A veto would easily be overturned, and yet the cheerleaders want Obama to do it anyway. "Go on, Don Quixote, joust that windmill! Sure it will smack you down, but it's the principle!"

    Where the hell are all the Sancho Panzas?

  • schtick on December 16, 2011 4:04 PM:

    The courts? What a joke. I'm with ckelly and tko. Obama has been the best republican since Clinton.

  • sherifffruitfly on December 16, 2011 4:12 PM:

    My favorite part is how self-proclaimed "progressives" solution is to help elect even MORE republicans.

    Remember: "progressive" anti-Obama-ism is what got us into this mess in 2010.

    Funny how all the "progressive" heroes seem to be former republicans, or 1%-ers.

  • tko on December 16, 2011 4:14 PM:

    Hey, John S., Obama got the bill he wanted, not something shoved down his throat. Levin said in an interview that he changed the wording to satisfy the President's request. The earlier wording had put too many restrictions on the President's powers.

  • chi res on December 16, 2011 4:17 PM:

    greenwald, fdl, and others who got us into this mess in the first place are that way ---->

    don't let the door hit you in the ass

  • Goldilocks on December 16, 2011 4:21 PM:

    Who says today's concept of "terrorism" will be tomorrow's?

    How long will it be till Occupy Our Homes participants will be designated terrorists, for example?

    Is there anywhere an official definition of "terrorism", domestic or otherwise, that specifically limits the extent of its interpretation?

  • tko on December 16, 2011 4:30 PM:

    I see all the Obamapologists are coming out. Get a clue. Obama doesn't represent you. He is only concerned with placating groups that can hurt his run for presidency. Yet he knows that the Dems will blindly support him no matter what. Here's a link to a Greenwald article about the Daley appointment that says it so much better than I ever could.

    I view the two political parties as two groups of lemmings. The Republicancers want to take us all off the cliff while the Democrats want to take us down the slope to the beach and drown us all. I'm not in the mood for a swim.

    Buzz off fruitfly before I break out the Raid.

  • chi res on December 16, 2011 4:49 PM:

    I prefer the Glenn Greenwald version of what Obama is about to sign into law as being slightly more truthful.

    Here's a link to a Greenwald article about the Daley appointment that says it so much better than I ever could.

    You should try thinking for yourself occasionally, firebagger.

  • square1 on December 16, 2011 6:52 PM:

    You should try thinking for yourself occasionally, firebagger.

    That's a good one. Greenwald does his readers the service of printing the actual language that he is criticizing, giving his readers the opportunity to read it for themselves and make up their own minds.

    Benen summarizes Serwer summarizing the bill. There isn't even a link to the actual bill. It is quite evident which post encourages readers to make up their own minds and which post encourages acceptance of spin.

    There is a reason that chi res, and other Obama cheerleaders, prefer to engage in invective ("firebagger!") rather than rational discussion ("this is why Greenwald is wrong").

    The reason is that the cheerleaders avoid getting pinned to a particular position. Like most of the shit bills that Obama has signed, there are always a rotating list of excuses: "The bill doesn't do what the critics say. But it does, the bill is necessary. But if it isn't necessary, it is the Republicans fault. Look over there, Mitt Romney is lying!"

  • Michael on December 16, 2011 7:01 PM:

    chi res: I don't recall Steve dying and declaring you the arbiter of who's permitted to read/comment here.

    Less politely: fuck off.

  • g on December 16, 2011 8:01 PM:

    Maybe Obama needs to start using "signing statements" like Bush did.

  • Doug on December 16, 2011 9:09 PM:

    "Levin said in an interview that he changed the wording to satisfy the President's request. The earlier wording had put too many restrictions on the President's powers." tko @ 4:14 PM

    What were the "restrictions", tko? You're assuming this is nothing but a power grab by President Obama; however one could just easily conclude, based on YOUR post, that the "restrictions" President Obama objected to were, in fact, objections to requirements forcing him to do something - such as maintaining Guantanamo. Eagerly awaiting clarification.
    Until then, I'm with chi res. It gets very tiresome to see so-called "progressives" blaming the victim and not the criminal.

  • chi res on December 17, 2011 2:03 AM:

    There is a reason that chi res, and other Obama cheerleaders, prefer to engage in invective ("firebagger!")

    Yes, there is a reason:

    I see all the Obamapologists are coming out.

    You start. We finish.

  • chi res on December 17, 2011 2:09 AM:

    I don't recall Steve dying and declaring you the arbiter of who's permitted to read/comment here.

    One can only try.

    Less politely: fuck off.

    Apparently you're trying out for the job now. Oops, didn't work.

  • square1 on December 17, 2011 1:59 PM:

    You start. We finish.

    A few problems with that.

    First, the "Obamapologists" comment came AFTER you told tko "don't let the door hit you in the ass" so spare us your victimology justification for being a rude bully.

    Second, I'd argue that "Obamapologists" is mostly descriptive in that you and others are defending Obama. Whereas "firebagger" (and "stupid" and "asshole" and other comments that you have used in the past) are gratuitously insulting and add nothing to the discussion. "Firebagger" may be a lame insult, but it is still intended to be an insult, as the term has no real meaning.

    Third, those who were criticizing Obama in this thread made actual arguments whereas you rely entirely on invective. You don't even attempt to make an argument of why tko, or myself, or Greenwald, or anyone else has drawn the wrong conclusion about the bill.

  • Cas on December 17, 2011 2:15 PM:

    Hi Steve,
    "Regardless, the NDAA is done. Recalling a phrase Iím sure Iíve used more than once this year, itís bad, but it could have been worse."
    Yes, the Bill could have authorized people to have been put up against a wall and shot, on suspicion of terrorism...
    Just the worse roll-over...

  • Connie Nash on December 18, 2011 6:13 AM:

    I don't think it's going to help for the author here, who sounds well meant, to downplay such a worrisome bill which could become even more dangerous years ahead.

    What we need now is to establish NDAA free zones like some resolutions have been doing with The Patriot Act and other rulings -- See No More Gitmos dot org and Bill of Rights Defense Committee dot org and War Is a Crime dot org Also see my blogsite for related items on the NDAA at One Heart For Peace dot blogspot dot com.

  • Connie Nash on December 18, 2011 6:15 AM:

    I don't think it's going to help for the author here, who sounds well meant, to downplay such a worrisome bill which could become even more dangerous years ahead.

    What we need now is to establish NDAA free zones like some resolutions have been doing with The Patriot Act and other rulings -- See No More Gitmos dot org and Bill of Rights Defense Committee dot org and War Is a Crime dot org Also see my blogsite for related items on the NDAA at One Heart For Peace dot blogspot dot com.

  • chi res on December 18, 2011 8:10 AM:

    You don't even attempt to make an argument of why tko, or myself, or Greenwald, or anyone else has drawn the wrong conclusion about the bill.

    Maybe you don't realize how obvious it is to everyone else that what you write has little to do with the bill, but, like every other subject on this blog concerning Obama, is simply another vehicle for you to fulfill your clear mission of consistently slamming the POTUS and elected Democrats.

    It's really not that hard to see. Haven't you read the many comments about you (other than mine) in many threads here?

    Your schtick gets real old real quick.

  • Brandt Hardin on December 20, 2011 5:26 PM:

    The NDAA only goes to further stifle our Constitutional Rights without the approval of the Americans, just as the Patriot Act was adopted WITHOUT public approval or vote just weeks after the events of 9/11. A mere 3 criminal charges of terrorism a year are attributed to this act, which is mainly used for no-knock raids leading to drug-related arrests without proper cause for search and seizure. The laws are simply a means to spy on our own citizens and to detain and torture dissidents without trial or a right to council. You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artistís blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

  • kenny green on January 02, 2012 10:26 AM:

    Holmes, It doesn't got anything to do with being a coward. It has everything to do with not actually being a Dem. And, or being bought. I would put nothing past those low lifes.

  • kenny green on January 02, 2012 10:31 AM:

    I would like to know when I have ever been on here

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