WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama recently signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013, while simultaneously objecting to several provisions in the bill that congress intended to use to decrease the president’s ability to move detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Obama originally threatened to veto the defense spending bill because of the provisions, which were intended to make it more difficult for him to fulfill his campaign promise to close the Guantanamo facility. Obama went through the same political process when the previous year’s defense authorization bill landed on his desk. As in that case, the president threatened a veto before eventually signing the bill, accompanied by a signing statement, which voices several objections to the bill’s intent and interprets some of its language as unconstitutional.
Obama explained in his signing statement that the law does not allow him to approve or reject sections of a bill one by one, which caused him to sign a bill he does not fully agree with. “In this case, though I continue to oppose certain sections of the act, the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”
One of his objections was to Section 1025, which Obama said, “places limits on the military’s authority to transfer third country nationals currently held at the detention facility in Parwan, Afghanistan.”
The president argued that military commanders in the field needed to have control over their own facilities, “without unwarranted interference by members of congress.”
He also objected to the bill’s renewal of the previous congress’s prohibition on using the currently appropriated funds earmarked for transferring Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. Obama made similar arguments about a rule barring his administration from transferring detainees to another country.
In all these instances, the president used some variation on the same statement, “in the event that these statutory restrictions operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”
This tactic of signing a bill while disputing some of its power and meaning in a signing statement has always existed in some form, but was greatly expanded under the Bush administration, which used this power on 1,200 bills, more than twice as many as all previous presidents combined. It is a strange aspect of our political process, as it is difficult to predict if a president is truly reinterpreting a bill and planning to dispute “constitutional conflicts” in the future or simply trying to record his objections for the historical record or political reasons.
The president voiced similar concerns about possible constitutional conflicts in the prior year but never tried to challenge the provisions he found objectionable in the long run. Signing statements like these only apply to the current administration and become inoperative when a new president takes the oath of office.
Civil liberty groups objected to Obama’s decision to sign the bill, viewing this as the nail in the coffin for their hopes that Guantanamo would be closed.
Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, voiced his disappointment to the New York Times. “The administration blames congress for making it harder to close Guantánamo, yet for a second year President Obama has signed damaging congressional restrictions into law,” she said. “The burden is on Obama to show he is serious about closing the prison.”
The American Bar Association weighed in on the presidential practice of using signing statements by reiterating its annual plea for the executive branch to avoid the move and instead veto legislation if it appears to be unconstitutional.