January 4, 2013
President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 on Wednesday, despite his own threat to veto it over prohibitions on closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
Civil liberties advocates had roundly criticized the bill over Guantanamo and a separate section that could allow the military to indefinitely detain American citizens on suspicions of supporting terrorism. Just as he did with last year’s version of the bill, however, Obama decided that the need to pass the NDAA, which also sets the armed forces’ $633 billion budget for the 2013 fiscal year, was simply “too great to ignore,” according to a presidential signing statement released in the early morning hours Thursday.
Members of the human rights coalition that had urged Obama to follow through on his veto threat blasted his decision as a cave to congressional Republicans.
“President Obama has utterly failed the first test of his second term, even before inauguration day,” American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement. “His signature means indefinite detention without charge or trial, as well as the illegal military commissions, will be extended.”
“It’s the second time that the president has promised to veto a piece of a very controversial national security legislation only to sign it,” said Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. “He has a habit of promising resistance to national security initiatives that he ultimately ends up supporting and enabling.”
After the president issued his veto threat in November, a House-Senate conference committee made one minor change: it shortened the length of the bill’s prohibition on transferring Guantanamo detainees to the U.S. to one fiscal year, instead of the open-ended ban in the original Senate version.
Obama’s signing statement did reiterate his opposition to restrictions on when he can move prisoners out of the Guantanamo camp. Such statements signal how a president plans to put a law into effect but do not have the force of law themselves, leaving future administrations to make their own interpretations.
As Politico’s Josh Gerstein notes, however, Obama’s recent signing statement significantly toned down his promises to reverse parts of the bill he objected to. Last year, Obama’s signing statement said his administration had “worked tirelessly to reform or remove the provisions” he found objectionable. Obama’s latest statement made no such claim.