Will Congress End Indefinite Detention of Americans?

<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/foreverdigital/1004203086/sizes/m/in/photostream/" target="_blank">Flickr/foreverdigital</a>

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Will Congress prevent American citizens from being subject to indefinite military detention? A bipartisan group of senators have crafted an amendment to the latest defense bill that they believe will do exactly that. 

“The federal government experimented with indefinite detention of United States citizens during World War II, a mistake we now recognize as a betrayal of our core values,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) Wednesday while introducing the amendment. “Let’s not repeat it.” Feinstein, who co-authored the amendment with Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) has support not only from Senate Democrats Chris Coons (D-Del) Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) but also Republican Senators Rand Paul, (R-Ky) Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill). “Granting the United States government the power to deprive its own citizens of life, liberty, or property without full due process of law goes against the very nature of our nation’s great constitutional values,” Lee said. The amendment could be voted on as early as Thursday, but it’ll still have to survive the House, where the GOP majority has scuttled similar efforts to prevent indefinite detention of Americans.

About a year ago, President Barack Obama signed the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act promising not to use Congress’ authorization of war against Al Qaeda to deny American citizens suspected of terrorism a fair trial by placing them in indefinite military detention. Senators, deadlocked over whether or not the Constitution allows such detention, agreed to adopt an amendment that left unaswered the question of whether Americans could be detained without trial. This year, Feinstein and Lee think their amendment blocking such detention for American citizens and legal permanent residents can pass. 

Not all civil liberties groups however, are supporting the effort. That’s because they think anyone on American soil should be given a trial if accused of a crime, given that the Constitution protects “persons,” rather than “citizens.” The Feinstein-Lee amendment is “inconsistent with the constitutional principle that basic due process applies to everyone in the US,” says ACLU legislative counsel Chris Anders. Not only that, but Anders worries that the amendment could be construed to actually imply that the government has the constitutional authority for such detention.  

The way the amendment reads now, a foreign visitor like Umar Abdulmutallab—the Nigerian who tried to explode a bomb in his underpants on a flight to Detroit several years ago—could still be subject to indefinite military detention. 

So why does Feinstein and Lee’s amendment only apply to US citizens and legal residents? Becuase that’s what could pass, Feinstein said Wednesday. While she could support extending the protection to any person apprehended on US soil, “the question is whether there is enough support in this body,” Feinstein said. “I do not believe there is.” 

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest