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Obama signs defense bill but balks at terrorism provisions

To maintain flexibility, he says, he may not follow requirements that certain suspects be held by the military.

December 31, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arizona Memoria on Thursday in Hawaii.
President Obama participates in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Arizona… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)

Reporting from Honolulu — President Obama signed a controversial military funding bill Saturday but vowed to interpret its measures regarding the treatment of detainees in ways that comport with his own judgment on how best to wage the fight against terrorists.

In a signing statement released by the White House, Obama indicated that he might not strictly follow certain requirements spelled out in the new law, saying that "my administration will interpret and implement the provisions … in a manner that best preserves the flexibility on which our safety depends and upholds the values on which this country was founded."

He specifically pointed to a provision requiring that certain foreign fighters captured by the U.S. be held in military custody, outside the reach of the civilian law enforcement system. Obama said there might be occasions when "law enforcement provides the best method of incapacitating a terrorist threat." He said he would waive any military custody requirement if he decided that were the best course.

"Under no circumstances will my administration accept or adhere to a rigid across-the-board requirement for military detention," Obama said.

The new law, the National Defense Authorization Act, provides more than $660 billion for military pay raises, weapon systems, military contracts and funding for the war in Afghanistan.

Obama had threatened a veto at one point if Congress set limitations on his ability to confront terrorists. But White House aides said Saturday that Obama retained the discretion a commander in chief needed to protect the U.S. from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

"The president is going to continue to adhere to the policies that he has held over the last three years, making sure that none of these congressional provisions impede the ability of the counter-terrorism and law enforcement and military professionals who are keeping this country safe," a senior White House aide told reporters Saturday in Hawaii, where the president is vacationing with his family.

Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the new law aimed to "offer a structure for holding those who would do us harm." McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) said the structure was one "both parties found preferable to the ad hoc course the White House has been on for nearly four years."

As a candidate for office, Obama said he would be judicious in his use of signing statements. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, was criticized for issuing signing statements in which he invoked his executive authority to bypass certain provisions of laws he disliked. Answering a survey by the Boston Globe in 2007, Obama said that "it is a clear abuse of power to use such statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like or as an end run around provisions designed to foster accountability."

But Obama has made repeated use of signing statements, employing them 18 times in about the first 2 1/2 years of his presidency, according to Politifact, a respected fact-checking service. The White House has said Bush abused this power, but that Obama has invoked it only to raise constitutional concerns about bills passed by Congress.

Obama mentioned a provision in the defense bill that bars the transfer of detainees to foreign countries. Obama said this "hinders the executive's ability to carry out its military, national security and foreign relation activities" in ways that could violate constitutional separation of powers. He said his administration would interpret the law in a fashion that would not crimp his constitutional authority.

The White House also suggested it would not comply with a provision in the bill requiring Obama to send a report to Congress 60 days before sharing classified missile defense information with Russia.

Obama wrote that he wanted to keep Congress "fully informed" of efforts to "cooperate" with Russia on a ballistic missile defense system. But he said that the measure intruded on his "constitutional authority to conduct foreign affairs."

Obama wrote that he would treat that and certain other provisions in the law as "nonbinding" should he determine that they "conflict with my constitutional authorities."

The president based his argument partly on his success in combating Al Qaeda. He said he had employed a flexible approach that benefited from minimal congressional interference.

As president, he has chalked up major victories in the effort to destroy Al Qaeda. He ordered the special operations mission that killed Osama bin Laden. And his administration has launched strikes that have wiped out many of Al Qaeda's other leaders.

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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