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Can Americans be indefinitely detained by the military on suspicion of terrorism if arrested on American soil? Thursday evening the Senate added a compromise amendment to the defense spending bill that states: Maybe. Specifically, it says the bill does not alter current authorities relating to detention, leaving either side free to argue whether current law allows or prohibits indefinite military detention of Americans captured in the US.
The compromise amendment passed by a 99-1 after a previous effort by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) that would have explicitly prevented the indefinite detention of Americans without trial failed 45-55. Several Democrats joined Republicans in blocking the latter amendment with Republican Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) Rand Paul (R-Ky) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill) joining most Democrats in voting for Feinstein's amendment.
The reason the compromise amendment worked is that it leaves the question of domestic military detention open, leaving the matter for Supreme Court to resolve should a future president decide to assert the authority to detain a US citizen on American soil. Senators who defended the detention provisions can continue to say that current law allows Americans to be detained based on the 2004 Hamdi v Rumsfeld case in which an American captured fighting in Afghanistan was held in military detention. Opponents can continue to point out that the Hamdi case doesn't resolve whether or not Americans can be detained indefinitely without charge if captured in their own country, far from any declared battlefield. They have the better of the argument.
The compromise amendment however, does nothing to address the Obama administration's concerns about the bill. The Directors of the FBI and CIA, the secretary of defense, and the director of national intelligence have all said that the bill's provision mandating military detention of non-citizen terror suspects apprehended on American soil would interfere with terrorism investigations and harm national security. That hasn't changed. The question is whether or not the administration is willing to make good on its threat to veto the bill, or whether it was just bluffing.
The floor debate over the Feinstein amendment showed that the argument over whether Americans in the US could be subject to indefinite military detention without trial doesn't fall neatly along partisan or ideological lines. Senator Kirk, in particular, gave a spirited defense of Feinstein's amendment, saying, "Most Americans think you can only be convicted of a crime in the United States beyond the shadow of a doubt by a jury of your peers. But if this [bill without the Feinstein amendment] is passed, that is no longer true."
Now, we simply have no idea.
This post has been edited for clarity.