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NDAA protest in Watertown takes aim at Owens

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Sean P. Niemi didn’t mind braving the cold temperatures Saturday to protest outside the Washington Street office of Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

After all, Mr. Niemi said, no less than six of the Bill of Rights’ ten amendments are at stake with the signing of a defense spending bill.

“To me, it sounds like an illegal law, left, right, sideways, backwards, upside down and inside out,” Mr. Niemi said. “And I just can’t have it.”

Mr. Niemi was protesting the National Defense Authorization Act, the majority of which dealt with military spending. But a small part of the bill, which Mr. Owens voted to approve and President Obama signed onto law on New Year’s Eve, has come under fire from national civil liberties groups that say it could lead to the indefinite detention of American citizens apprehended on American soil.

Mr. Owens said that nothing in the law is objectionable: No American citizens are at risk of being detained, and it doesn’t actually change current U.S. law.

He does not share the concern of Mr. Niemi, the American Civil Liberties Union and of the president himself.

“President Obama’s action today is a blight on his legacy because he will forever be known as the president who signed indefinite detention without charge or trial into law,” Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU executive director, said in a news release after the president signed the bill.

Mr. Obama issued a signing statement — interpretations of laws that come along with approval of a bill — to signal “serious reservations” with some of the bill’s sweeping provisions.

The bill affirms the right of the military to permanently detain those connected to Al Qaida or the planning of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The bill doesn’t affect the rights of American citizens to challenge their detention under the most controversial portion of the bill, Section 1021, its supporters say.

“It does not change the law in any way. Still, the courts have the ultimate decision in this regard,” Mr. Owens said.

But Mr. Niemi, who stood on a small grassy island between The Y and Mr. Owens’s office in the HSBC building with a few members of his family, isn’t placated by exemptions for U.S. citizens.

“I have no problem whatsoever with going after somebody that attacks the United States,” Mr. Niemi said. “However, the wording of Section 1021 is so vague that groups like the (National Rifle Association), groups like Occupy Wall Street, these groups could easily be considered extremist organizations and be held accountable for perceived actions against the U.S. government under Section 1021.”

Mr. Owens said that Americans being subject to indefinite detention is a thorny issue that must take into account geography.

“Clearly, that depends upon where those Americans were apprehended,” Mr. Owens said. “If they’re apprehended in Afghanistan, that’s a significantly different issue than if they’re apprehended in the United States.”

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