The White House said this week that President Obama will sign a controversial $662-billion defense authorization that permits indefinite detention without trial for some terrorism suspects and broadens the authorization for the use of force against people and groups "associated" with Al Qaeda anywhere in the world. It's the wrong choice.
The bill, which passed the House Wednesday and the Senate Thursday, is being advertised as a compromise with the administration, and indeed it includes provisions designed to avoid a veto. But several are vague or confusing. For example, although it requires that foreign suspected Al Qaeda terrorists be placed in military custody, it seems to allow FBI agents to interrogate them. On Wednesday, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III said that the compromise left "uncertainty as to who has the role and who's going to do what."
The FBI has proved effective in detaining and questioning terrorist suspects, just as the civilian court system has acquitted itself admirably in trying them. Congress' preference for military custody and trial by military commission disregards this proven record of success.
Two other provisions would prevent civilian trials in other ways. One would bar any use of Defense Department funds to transfer inmates at Guantanamo Bay to the United States, even for trial. Another would prohibit spending on the construction of facilities on U.S. soil to house Guantanamo inmates. As a practical matter, this means the remaining prisoners at Guantanamo will be tried by military commissions, which offer more protections than in the past but still fall short of the standards of due process observed by civilian courts.