Since early in his administration, President Obama has been bedeviled by lawmakers intent on frustrating his pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center and determined to tie his hands when dealing with detainees. Congress decreed that no Defense Department funds could be used to transfer terrorism suspects into the United States - even those who had been ordered released by federal judges or destined for federal court prosecutions. No Defense funds could be used to build or buy a prison on U.S. soil to house detainees. Intimidated by fearmongering, even Democrats embraced these obnoxious provisions. The president essentially stood by, grousing quietly.
Congress is again moving to renew — and in some cases, ratchet up — many of these restrictions. This time — in the wake of the successful military operation that killed Osama bin Laden — the president seems willing to fight. It’s about time.
The House last week passed a defense authorization bill that contained provisions that essentially bar the president from prosecuting Guantanamo prisoners in federal court and limit his flexibility in transferring detainees to third countries. A last-minute amendment requires all foreign nationals accused of acts of terrorism — apparently even those captured in the future on U.S. soil — to be tried only in military commissions.
The president responded with what appears to be his first veto threat in connection with detainee restrictions. He is right to reject what the administration called the “dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority.” He also is justified in fighting against the attempt to strip federal courts from his anti-terrorism arsenal.