Obama Should Read this Letter

By Benjamin Wittes
Saturday, January 22, 2011, 9:06 PM

The New York Times' Charlie Savage notes an interesting letter sent to President Obama by the new House Armed Services Committee Chairman, Buck McKeon, concerning plans for an executive order establishing a detention review system:

“As you know, any issue relating to law of war detention, particularly a legal framework for detention and related review procedures, necessarily must involve congressional authorization,” Mr. McKeon wrote, citing press reports that the White House has been drafting an executive order to address issues related to holding detainees without trial.

. . .

In his letter, Mr. McKeon reminded Mr. Obama of his “laudable comments” about engaging with Congress at the National Archives, then complained that there had been no coordination with lawmakers about detention policy efforts and that the Pentagon had not given the Armed Services Committee a staff briefing about them.

He made clear that he, like Senator [Lindsey] Graham, thinks new legislation is necessary “to create a system whereby terrorists who pose a legitimate threat to the United States are not released.

“I fully recognize the importance of crafting a careful and comprehensive framework for the detention of terrorists who wish to harm the United States,” he wrote. “I also recognize the challenges and legal complexities related to such an endeavor. This appreciation is why I know this issue is simply too important for the Administration to address on its own.”

McKeon has sent very mixed signals in the past as to whether he wants to play a constructive role in detention policy or whether he just wants to tie the administration's hands. But if I were Obama, I would take this letter pretty seriously. It offers a partnership on detention policy, and that's nothing to sneeze at coming from the Chairman of a key committee. What's more, McKeon is quite right that Obama committed himself in his National Archive speech to working with Congress on the regime that will govern detention. There is no good reason, in my view, for the administration not to find out if McKeon is serious about this. The full text of the letter appears at the bottom of Charlie's story.