WASHINGTON - President Obama and his national security team have appealed to lawmakers for last-minute changes to a sweeping defense bill that requires military custody for terrorism suspects linked to al-Qaeda, including those captured within the United States.
The legislation is caught in an escalating dispute between the White House and Congress over the politically charged issue of whether to treat suspected terrorists as prisoners of war or criminals.
The president led a full-court press last week that included Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and FBI Director Robert Mueller asking for revisions to the bill as House and Senate negotiators move swiftly to complete a final version.
The White House had already threatened a veto if the bill wasn't changed, saying it could not accept legislation that "challenges or constrains the president's authorities to collect intelligence, incapacitate dangerous terrorists, and protect the nation."
Obama spoke to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D., Mich.). Clinton and Panetta also spoke to Levin, and Mueller has met with Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, administration and congressional officials said Friday on condition of anonymity.
The administration insists the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agents need flexibility in prosecuting the antiterror effort. Obama cites his administration's successes in eliminating Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda figure Anwar al-Awlaki. Republicans counter that their efforts are necessary to respond to an evolving, post-9/11 threat, and that Obama has failed to produce a consistent policy on handling terrorism suspects. The Senate bill would require the military to take custody of suspects deemed members of al-Qaeda or its affiliates and involved in plotting or committing attacks on the United States, with an exemption for U.S. citizens.
The bill does allow the executive branch to waive the military's authority based on national security and hold suspects in civilian custody, but the administration argues that is insufficient.
As negotiators have raced to finish the bill by early this coming week, administration officials have offered various changes to the provisions but have had little success in persuading lawmakers. One potential change was to limit the cases in which the military custody provision would apply.