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Patrick L.
Democrat VT

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  • Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act of 2014—Continued

    by Senator Patrick J. Leahy

    Posted on 2014-12-11

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    Read More about Protecting Volunteer Firefighters and Emergency Responders Act of 2014--Continued

    LEAHY. Madam President, once again, the Senate has an opportunity to consider the National Defense Authorization Act. This bill is named for the two retiring chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, Senator Carl Levin and Congressman Buck McKeon. Carl Levin has been a fierce defender of Michigan, strong advocate for the men and women of our armed services, and a friend. When the Senate passes this bill, and the President signs it into law, it will be a fitting tribute to Senator Levin's storied legacy of public service.

    This compromise--a comprehensive authorization of the Nation's military arm--is far from perfect. No bill is. But this authorization provides support and resources for the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces, who defend our Nation, and whose families sacrifice so much in the name of public service. The bill prepares our country to face future challenges, and promotes the goals and values that have become a hallmark of our national defense.

    Of primary importance to me, this defense authorization bill protects the Leahy law, the requirements by which we vet the individuals and units of foreign security forces we train and equip. While one component of the Leahy law, traditionally incorporated annually in the Department of State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill as it relates to the activities of the State Department, was made permanent in 2012 as section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act, this Defense authorization bill makes the component of the law as it relates to Defense Department activities permanent law.

    This provision permits human rights training, which is narrowly defined, for individuals who are members of units of foreign security forces that have been deemed ineligible under the Leahy law. However, those individuals must not have been involved in violations, the training must have the concurrence of the State Department, it may only occur in the individuals' home countries, the State Department must be consulted on the content, methodology, and intended beneficiaries, and the training is not sufficient for meeting the accountability requirement for purposes of the exception in the law.

    Some in the Pentagon have suggested that the Leahy law has impeded their ability to engage with foreign security forces. Not only do the facts prove otherwise, that is the same discredited claim of those who have argued that the CIA's torture of prisoners was legal and made us safer.

    The United States may have the most powerful military, but that power is immeasurably weakened if we fail to uphold the values and principles this Nation was founded on: due process, respect for the rule of law, and respect for the laws of war.

    We should learn from history. When we abandon those values and principles and support or associate ourselves with foreign forces who commit atrocities, we pay a heavy price.

    This defense authorization also includes a provision I authored with Senator Lindsey Graham to establish a commission on the future of the army. The President's fiscal year 2015 budget proposal reflected many tough choices about the future size and shape of each of the services. It also included decisions about the U.S. Army that would irreversibly change the nature of that branch. Most dramatically, the proposal included a plan to eliminate the Nation's reserve of Apache helicopters by consolidating all of them within the active component. Such a move raises serious questions about the ability to sustain long-term operations or be ready for unexpected contingencies. As cochairs of the Senate National Guard Caucus, Senator Graham and I, with the support of 47 other Senators, proposed legislation to minimize the budgetary impact of these decisions by providing for additional review while allowing tough, but noncontroversial changes to go forward. I am grateful to Senator Levin and our partners in the House for supporting its inclusion in this broader bill.

    This authorization bill will provide important support to the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families. While I do not support some of the included changes to benefits, those that are part of this final bill are far less severe than originally proposed. With the Military Compensation and Retirement Commission soon to report, I hope we can finally put an end to what has become an annual effort by the Department of Defense to draw back benefits already earned by our servicemembers. There should be no bait and switch.

    Unrelated to defense policy, I am grateful that this legislation includes [[Page S6681]] an important designation for Vermont. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System recognizes and preserves rivers with remarkable scenic and recreational value. With the passage of this legislation, Vermont will join 40 other States with designated national wild and scenic rivers. This designation of the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers is the capstone of more than 7 years of work, including intense study and planning by the local communities that want to protect the natural, cultural, and recreational qualities of these rivers.

    This defense authorization bill is not perfect; politics as much as policy makes that the case. I am disappointed that this authorization fails to build on important progress made last year to streamline the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo Bay and move closer to finally shuttering the detention facility there. This compromise bill will maintain the status quo by continuing to prohibit the transfer of detainees to the United States for detention or trial. I am disappointed that a provision contained in the Senate Armed Services Committee version of the authorization that would have provided exceptions to this prohibition was removed during negotiations. However, I am pleased that the bill does not contain the statutory ban on detainee transfers to Yemen that also was contained in the Senate bill.

    As long as the detention facility at Guantanamo remains open, it serves as a recruitment tool for terrorists, and tarnishes America's historic role as a champion of human rights. The prison facility at Guantanamo remains a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars--costing this country billions of dollars at a time when budgets are tight and that money is needed elsewhere. Closing Guantanamo is the morally responsible thing to do; my commitment on that has not wavered.

    With regard to some of the provisions included in this bill that relate to combatting the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), I expect the Department of Defense to abide by the Leahy law. These terrorists pose a threat to the United States and to our partners; they must be stopped and brought to justice. But we cannot ignore our own laws or permit the United States to be implicated, either directly or indirectly, in gross violations of human rights when we support either governments or irregular forces in the fight against ISIS.

    There have been multiple reports that some in the Iraqi Army and the militias they fight alongside engage in reprehensible conduct similar to the barbaric crimes of ISIS. As a matter of law and policy, we must condemn this. I cannot--and will not--support any effort to weaken the application of the Leahy law to the Iraqi Army or to any entity it is aligned with.

    As in every defense authorization bill, there are things in here that I support and things I wish were not in here. Compromise is inherent in this process. But we cannot forsake our principles and ideals when it comes to supporting our national defense and the men and women who serve. I will support this compromise bill and remain committed to ensuring that we preserve the values that make this Nation a beacon of civil and human rights around the globe.

    Madam President, I am grateful that the fiscal year 15 National Defense Authorization Act includes an important designation for Vermont. The National Wild and Scenic Rivers system recognizes and preserves rivers with remarkable scenic and recreational value. With the passage of this legislation, Vermont will join 40 other States with designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers. Designation of the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers is the capstone of more than 7 years of work, including intense study and planning by the local communities who want to protect the natural, cultural and recreational qualities of these rivers.

    This has not been a Federal-led initiative; instead it was an occasion for Vermont citizens to work together. The communities along the rivers contacted me in 2006 to request the initial Federal study for this designation. The decision to move ahead was made by local communities that agreed to specific goals and priorities for these two rivers. This designation was put to a vote at the communities' town meetings and was approved by every town that is included in the legislation.

    National Wild and Scenic status for these rivers will help the local communities promote recreational use, while also protecting the rights and values of landowners who make their homes and livings on the banks of these rivers. I am proud that this process has been driven by the impacted communities, working to ensure that the Upper Missisquoi and Trout Rivers will forever be enjoyed by fishermen, hunters, and paddlers and that water quality will be protected. The benefits will extend downstream as far as Lake Champlain and beyond.

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