In times of war, a lot of laws tend to get suspended, overlooked, or modified to provide some sort of a military exemption and these changes are then rarely discussed once the war is over. During the Civil War, Lincoln’s administration suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus. FDR sent citizens to interment camps to soothe fears that Japanese-Americans were actually Imperial spies as demonstrated by Dr. Seuss. After wars are over, a few officials meet and the original rules are restored. But when you declare a war on terror and keep it going on for more than a decade, legal exemptions for it quickly start becoming the norm because while the war is still going, you can’t reverse the extraordinary measures even if by now they’ve become a fact of life. And in the spirit of ongoing wars, the Senate has decided that it really, really, really wants to give the military the right to detain American citizens suspected of being terrorists indefinitely, without trial. And what’s ever crazier about this idea is that neither the military or the FBI even want that ability and actually protested loudly against the whole thing, knowing full well that it would be a logistical, legal, and public relations nightmare.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and FBI Director Robert Mueller have spelled out their opposition in letters to lawmakers. Mueller said that because the legislation applies to people detained in the U.S., it could disrupt ongoing international terrorism investigations and make it difficult for the FBI to work with a grand jury or obtain subpoenas. He also described the waiver as too cumbersome, requiring that it be obtained from the defense secretary in consultation with the secretary of state and the director of National Intelligence with a certification to Congress.
So basically, the Senate said to the defense establishment "here, you can lock up any suspect for as long as you want" and the military and the FBI said "oh no thank you, we’re not touching that with a fifty foot pole, it’s all good right now" while the CIA gave a noncommittal statement about a need for flexibility. Then, instead of just taking the hint and quietly dropping the provision, the Senate replied "we said, here, you can lock up anybody you think should be locked up" and packaged it into a bill which funds all military and intelligence agencies to the tune of $662 billion to make sure the provision passes in another triumph of political posturing over both common sense and a good swath of the Constitution. Remember that politicians don’t necessarily care how their laws will be implemented, they’re far more focused on getting their bills made into law, then moving to a new bill to be passed or crushed. I’m even willing to venture a bet that they really don’t care if the military or the law enforcement and intelligence agencies never use this provision fearing it would be ruled unconstitutional the second a lawsuit is filed because quite frankly, it doesn’t take a legal scholar to deduce its flaws.
No, what the politicians care about is telling all their constituents that they were tough on terrorism and are the vanguard of national security as shown by their willingness to let the defense establishment lock up would-be terrorists. Were President Obama to veto the provision, the Republicans would have a field day making attack ad after attack ad accusing him of defunding national security and being soft on terrorism, despite authorizing drone strike after drone strike after drone strike in numerous terrorist havens, and operations to kill bin Laden and al-Awlaki. And after the veto, they may just decide to create another crisis, putting the future of the military and intelligence services at stake just to score more points. It’s insane political brinkmanship at its worst and it’s this kind of nightmarish perpetual campaigning and incessant bickering that’s paralyzing the government, holding up real debates and changes, and contributing the Congress’ approval rating plummeting into single digits. At this point, it’s hard to find things that are less popular than lawmakers other than a wandering band of neo-Nazis who kick little stray kittens with steel-toed boots just for fun, or the Westboro Baptist Church. Yet, reelection rates to Congress hover around 90% as a testament to gerrymandering and sectionalism.
For the sake of our future, we need to find politicians who will know when to stop campaigning and playing an insane game of chicken that threatens to plunge the country into chaos every time they don’t get their way. You cannot govern like that, no one can. This is how nations are broken and how institutions collapse. This is why we don’t have better schools, better science and research programs, and why so many bad ideas fester like a bad infection rather than being mercifully terminated to save all of us time and money. Yes, government is the problem, but it’s not its institutions or its methods that are at fault. It’s those who cannot stop to put the interest of their nation ahead of their own greed, ambition, and hunger for power after winning yet another election, the politicos who are blinded by partisan games and don’t care that millions are hurt by their selfish myopia. The minute they stop campaigning and acting like spoiled teenagers with a huge allowance, we’ll all be far better off and we can actually do something about our problems rather than await the next hysterical partisan drama over the slightest little bullet point in a thousand page bill.