Obama OKs defense bill despite ‘serious reservations’

By Stephen Collinson, AFP

HONOLULU, Hawaii — U.S. President Barack Obama Saturday signed a huge defense bill despite “serious reservations” that it seeks to force his hand on Guantanamo Bay and military trials for terror suspects. Obama, on vacation in Hawaii, added a signing statement to the US$662 billion law, laying out objections to its constraints on detaining and prosecuting suspects, and directing government agencies on how to interpret them. “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation, and prosecution of suspected terrorists,” Obama said. He argued that recent U.S. successes against al-Qaida had been possible because counterterrorism authorities had benefited from flexibility on dealing with suspects, which the bill called into question. “Against that record of success, some in Congress continue to insist upon restricting the options available to our counterterrorism professionals and interfering with the very operations that have kept us safe,” Obama wrote. He said he signed the measure because it was needed to fund military operations abroad vital to national security and to support U.S. armed services. But he warned he would implement it in a manner that best preserves the “flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded,” setting up likely future rows with Congress. The measure, which passed by wide majorities in Congress, says the U.S. military has the power to detain terror suspects without trial for as long as the U.S. global anti-terror campaign is waged. Obama was particularly troubled by a section of the bill which appears to leave open the option that a U.S. citizen who is considered a terror suspect could be detained indefinitely in military custody. “I want to clarify that my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” Obama said. “Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.” The new law revives debate over the complicated legal thicket surrounding the treatment of terror suspects and over rules hurriedly drawn up by the previous Bush administration after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. Obama has sought to preserve the option of trying some terror suspects in federal courts, or for those accused of plotting new attacks against the United States to be processed through the civilian legal system. “I reject any approach that would mandate military custody where law enforcement provides the best method of incapacitating a terrorist threat,” Obama said in the signing statement. However, the president said he believed the bill did grant him sufficient latitude to interpret its provisions that complies with the U.S. Constitution and the laws of war. The White House had initially threatened to veto the bill because of the detainee measures but backed off when compromise version was agreed with lawmakers which it said addressed some of its worries. But it said that lawmakers should be prepared to make changes to the rules should it become clear as they are implemented that they restrict counterterrorism professionals and undercut the rule of law. The bill sets high hurdles for closing the “war on terror” prison at Guantanamo Bay. It extends the prohibition on the use of Pentagon funds to build facilities in the United States to house inmates of Guantanamo Bay, constraining Obama’s efforts to close the war on terror prison. And the bill also bars the use of government money to transfer Guantanamo inmates to the U.S. mainland, again in an attempt to force the administration to try them in military rather than civil courts.

A signing statement lays out what the president’s understanding is of a measure he is signing into law and tells government officials and agencies exactly how the new legislation should be implemented.