Facing a serious civil liberties backlash, Congress is considering changing a controversial counterterrorism law it passed last year. Yet the leading fix, backed by House Republicans, may not be a fix at all.
Last year, during consideration of the National Defense Authorization Act, Congress came close to authorizing the indefinite detention of American citizens captured on US soil who were suspected of terrorism. Ultimately, the House, the Senate, and the White House agreed on a compromise that would let federal courts decide whether such detentions were constitutional. That is, when confronted with the knotty question of whether the US government can detain its own citizens within the nation's borders without charging them with a crime, Congress decided not to decide. Still, activists on the left and right remain concerned, because although President Barack Obama promised not to use that power, the law does not explicitly prevent him from doing so. In the months since Obama signed the bill in January, a strange-bedfellows alliance has raised such a ruckus over the legislation that Congress is now considering three separate proposals to amend the law.
"There has been significant constituent concern" over the NDAA, says Claude Chafin, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee.
The revolt against the NDAA has brought together organizations and activists that disagree on almost every other issue—tea party activists, the states' rights Tenth Amendment Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Occupy Wall Street protesters. The NDAA is "waking people up to the idea that the federal government shouldn't have this kind of power," says Michael Boldin, the director of the Tenth Amendment Center. "We're seeing this weird mishmosh coalition of people." In mid-April, Boldin's group joined a number of other conservative organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of liberal journalist Chris Hedges' anti-NDAA lawsuit against the Obama administration.
The NDAA backlash has already fueled action on the state level. In Virginia, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell recently signed a bill that could prohibit state authorities from "knowingly" aiding in the military detention of a US citizen. The Arizona Legislature passed a bill making it a misdemeanor for state officials to help the feds detain US citizens under the NDAA, and the Maine Legislature passed a joint resolution urging Congress and the president to amend the law to make it clear that Americans apprehended on US soil can't be detained without trial. All three states have legislatures with Republican majorities.