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United States

Dec 16, 2011

Indefinite detention formalised in US -- and the world is a war

A new bill in Washington formalises the power of the US military to abuct and imprison anyone, anywhere in the world.

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A bill that provides for indefinite detention of Americans within the United States and determines that the entire world is a battlefield on which the war on terror is being waged is now set to be signed into law in Washington.

The National Defence Authorisation Act of 2012 (NDAA), sponsored by Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, enables US military forces to collect and imprison anyone anywhere in the world and keep them confined within the US military system rather than have access to civilian courts (even the most stacked US Supreme Court of recent generations overturned the Bush Administration’s military commissions). The provisions form part of a $US660 billion defence appropriation for 2012.

Until yesterday, the Obama Administration had threatened to veto the bill. However, the mooted veto was not because of its far-reaching nature or its infringement of the most basic of civil liberties, but because the bill in effect codified and therefore potentially restricted the executive’s currently nebulous powers of internment — that is, the Obama Administration was concerned the bill would reduce the powers it claimed to have to inter people.

On Wednesday the Administration dropped its veto threat after an amendment was made giving the executive greater flexibility in relation to detention.

Bipartisan opposition to the bill has come from 43 Republicans and 93 Democrats in the House and an evenly split group of 13 senators, including Rand Paul, whose father, libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, has claimed the bill “legalises martial law” and complained about it being ignored in public debate.

Paul has a point. For a nation where the wildest conspiracy theories about the intentions of its Muslim, socialist, non-American president circulate widely, and often at the highest levels of the Republican party, the reaction to a bill formalising powers of indefinite detention has been peculiarly quiet. It has, however produced another example of the growing tendency of libertarian right and progressive left to campaign on similar issues. “[Senator] Tom Coburn is surprisingly reliable on Bill of Rights for someone who thinks it stems from Ten Commandments,” activist Barrett Brown tweeted after the Senate vote yesterday.

The indefinite perpetuation of the war on terror and its legal framework — with ensuing benefits for security, intelligence and law enforcement agencies and defence industry companies — despite the assassination of Osama bin Laden, repeated claims that al-Qaeda’s leadership has been destroyed and the only domestic terror plots being those resourced and encouraged by the FBI, is the bipartisan policy within the centrist elements of both parties in the US.

This leaves the more fringe members on both sides, like the Pauls and liberal Illinois Democrat senator Dick Durbin, to unite in opposition to the Washington consensus. The centre, however, dominates, and there is no restraint coming from the Obama administration.

As one senator observed in 2006: “… restricting somebody’s right to challenge their imprisonment indefinitely is not going to make us safer. In fact, recent evidence shows it is probably making us less safe.” Oh, that was another liberal Illinois senator, one Barack Obama.

Whatever happened to him?

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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