The bill, which Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed Wednesday, is unconstitutional. It trenches on the federal government’s war powers and violates conditions under which Virginia and other states have received billions of dollars of federal funding. It has dangerous symbolic and practical consequences and undermines the cooperation necessary to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda plots on our shores.
The basis of this legislation in Virginia and 11 other states (Arizona, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia) is a gross misunderstanding or intentional misreading of the detainee provisions in the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
Some members of the tea party and the Tenth Amendment Center, a conservative group devoted to states’ rights, have joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to monger fear over federal detention authority. Under their contorted reading of the act, federal law requires all U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism to be held in military custody and strips them of all constitutional rights.
But although the NDAA describes military custody as the primary policy option for dealing with captured enemy combatants, the president retains, as is constitutionally proper, discretion to utilize the civilian justice and penal systems. In fact, the NDAA did not change settled law at all. It says that “nothing in this section shall be construed to affect existing law” related to the detention of U.S. citizens captured or arrested in the United States. Furthermore, under the Supreme Court’s post-Sept. 11 rulings, especially
Hamdi v. Rumsfeld
Boumediene v. Bush
, enemy combatants (regardless of citizenship) may be held for the duration of the hostilities, but anyone in military custody, whether in the United States or Guantanamo, is able to exercise habeas corpus rights to challenge the detention.
Despite these facts, some continue to fight what they see as a federal leviathan that acts extra-constitutionally all the time. But the federal government has the primary role in national security. Although comprehensive detention legislation has proved elusive, the language in the NDAA reflects the considered and constitutionally binding judgment of Congress and the president on an issue over which the federal government properly holds sway.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have recruited terrorists in the United States. Under the law of armed conflict — which predates the 2001 attacks — enemy combatants, regardless of citizenship, may be detained for the duration of the hostilities.