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Measure would widen president's power to fight terrorists

A provision included in a $690-billion defense spending bill expands on legislation passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Some lawmakers aren't happy, and neither is the White House.

May 24, 2011|By Kim Geiger, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Tucked away in a $690-billion defense spending bill is a little-noticed provision that would expand the president's power to pursue suspected terrorists around the world.

The measure builds on legislation passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that allowed President George W. Bush to pursue perpetrators of the attacks and their collaborators without first consulting with Congress.

The new provision would no longer require that targets have a connection to Sept. 11, instead granting the president authority to "use all necessary and appropriate force during the current armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces."

The measure, contained in a bipartisan spending authorization bill making its way through the House, has infuriated a small group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers who contend it gives the White House too much power and undercuts Congress' authority on matters of war.

"Congress continues to neuter itself when it comes to our constitutional responsibility," said Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "We continue to give away more and more of our authority, and I just think it's wrong."

The White House also objected to the measure in a statement released Tuesday and threatened to veto the bill over that and other provisions.

But a Republican congressional aide familiar with the drafting of the legislation defended the provision as "common sense."

"It is a pragmatic update to the original" post-Sept. 11 provision, said the aide, adding that it expands executive authority to pursue "terrorist groups that have splintered away from Al Qaeda in the decade since 9/11."

"It does not grant the president any superfluous powers, nor does it represent an expansion of war," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the bill.

The House on Tuesday began several days of debate on the defense spending bill, which is likely to highlight a range of disagreements over military resources and security policy.

In its objection, the White House said the provision risked confusion over the scope and standards of conflict. "At a minimum, this is an issue that merits more extensive consideration before possible inclusion," the statement said.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said the proposed new language "amounts to giving the president a blank check."

"It is a never-ending declaration that we will use force anywhere in the world against any nation and any individual," added Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek). "It is just a wide-open invitation for war."

The American Civil Liberties Union has been lobbying to remove the language from the bill.

"It's a sweeping war provision," said Christopher Anders, senior ACLU legislative counsel in Washington.

The White House also objected to provisions that it said would "directly or indirectly undermine, prevent or delay the implementation of the repeal" of "don't ask, don't tell," the law that barred openly gay individuals from military service.

The administration also targeted provisions that would prevent the military from recognizing same-sex marriages and from allowing same-sex marriages to be performed at military sites.

And White House officials threatened to veto the legislation if it restricts the administration's ability to implement a new arms reduction treaty with Russia. The New START Treaty was ratified by the Senate in December.

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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