The Senate passed a version of the National Defense Authorization Act that was stripped of a prohibition of the indefinite military detention of US citizens on American soil by an 81-14 vote on Friday, but only after a furious dissent on the chamber's floor by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who called it an "abomination."
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 will now head to the White House, which had earlier pledged to veto the NDAA because it prevents the president from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. It is unclear whether the president will follow through on the threat.
The NDAA is a reauthorization of the large budget bill that sets the budget for a wide range of military activities, but it has proven most controversial for a provision that critics say would allow the military to abuse its detention powers to lock Americans away on the mere suspicion of support for terrorist groups.
In November, a bipartisan group of Senators affixed an amendment to the NDAA that would have explicitly prohibited the military from detaining American citizens on US soil. But earlier this week, a House-Senate conference committee led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stripped away that measure.
Paul, a libertarian Republican, voiced his opposition to the conference committee's move in strong terms and urged his colleagues to vote against the bill.
"We had protection in this bill. We passed an amendment that specifically said if you were an American citizen or here legally in the country, you would get a trial by jury," Paul said. "It's been removed because they want the ability to hold American citizens without trial in our country. This is so fundamentally wrong and goes against everything we stand for as a country that it can't go unnoticed."
"When you're accused of a crime in our country you get a trial, you get a trial by a jury of your peers, no matter how heinous your crime is, no matter how awful you are, we give you a trial," he said. "This bill takes away that right and says that if someone thinks you're dangerous, we will hold you without a trial. It's an abomination."
Citing past examples of injustice in America, including the military internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, Paul asked, "will America only begin to regret our loss of trial by jury when the people have names like Smith and Jones?"
He also pointed out the open-ended nature of the so-called "war on terror," which has now gone on for more than 11 years and shows no sign of letting up, even after the killing of Osama bin Laden. "When will your rights be restored if the battle has no end, and the battlefield is limitless, and the war is endless?" Paul asked.
But top Senators in support of the bill dismissed Paul's charges as bogus, claiming that language in the NDAA preserves Americans' constitutional right to trial by jury. Only when they ally themselves with foreign terrorist powers, they said, do Americans abdicate their rights as citizens.
Supporters of the NDAA like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed to new language in the conference committee report stipulating that "nothing" in the bill could construed to deny people of their rights in court -- language that civil liberties advocates dismissed as meaningless, since the controversy is over whether those suspected of terrorism are afforded the right to trial in the first place.
In defense of the bill and in response to Paul's claims, Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said, "I don't mind saying I think we're at war."
"How long does that war last? I don't know. I can't tell you. Am I supposed to know that? Can we not fight it unless we know the date it ends? America, is it part of the battlefield?" Graham said. "What do you think al Qaeda would love to do more than anything else? Come here and destroy the building I am speaking in."