In the decade since the 9/11 attacks, Congress has been willing to do almost anything to ward off more terrorist strikes. It has given the government broad authority to hunt, hold and try suspected terrorists. Trouble is, the law is written so broadly that the government would have little difficulty applying it to virtually anyone.
The latest example is a provision in the annual defense authorization bill that would allow the U.S. military to detain anyone indefinitely without charges or trial — even U.S. citizens — if the president determines they're suspected of being terrorists or having aided terrorists.
One would hope no president would ever abuse that authority, but the Founders saw enough of a threat to protect against it constitutionally. The Fifth Amendment guarantees that "no person" can be "deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law." It is the bedrock protection Americans have always had against a rogue government. It's one of the rights that sets the U.S. apart from countries where the dictator decides what the law is. Why should it be so casually discarded?
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Lawmakers who allow fear of terrorism to overcome respect for more than two centuries of American legal tradition wrote this indefinite-detention measure into last year's defense authorization bill. President Obama promised not to use the authority against American citizens, but that doesn't undo the law, or bind him or any successor. A federal district court ruled the law unconstitutional last month, but higher courts have yet to weigh in. The House effectively renewed the authority last month. The Senate could take it up soon.
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