President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today despite his veto threat. The law now restricts detainee transfers out of military prisons in Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay. “Obama attached a signing statement claiming that he has the constitutional power to override the limits in the law,” the New York Times reports. “Despite his objections, Mr. Obama signed the bill, saying its other provisions on military programs were too important to jeopardize.”
Obama’s three page signing statement objected to many parts of the bill. For example, Obama objects to what I’m calling the “Romney battleship preservation” clause:
In a time when all public servants recognize the need to eliminate wasteful or duplicative spending, various sections in the Act limit the Defense Department’s ability to direct scarce resources towards the highest priorities for our national security. For example, restrictions on the Defense Department’s ability to retire unneeded ships and aircraft will divert scarce resources needed for readiness and result in future unfunded liabilities.
But, more troublesome to the president and those of us who want to see Gitmo closed, is the NDAA interferes with his ability to close military detention prisons. He writes:
Several provisions in the bill also raise constitutional concerns. Section 1025 places limits on the military’s authority to transfer third country nationals currently held at the detention facility in Parwan, Afghanistan… Decisions regarding the disposition of detainees captured on foreign battlefields have traditionally been based upon the judgment of experienced military commanders and national security professionals without unwarranted interference by Members of Congress. Section 1025 threatens to upend that tradition, and could interfere with my ability as Commander in Chief…
Section 1028 fundamentally maintains the unwarranted restrictions on the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country. This provision hinders the Executive’s ability to carry out its military, national security, and foreign relations activities and would, under certain circumstances, violate constitutional separation of powers principles… The Congress designed these sections, and has here renewed them once more, in order to foreclose my ability to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.
There has been much criticism of the 112th Congress as the worst Congress ever, but writing at Esquire today, Charlie Pierce observes that it is more than just Congress that is out-of-whack when it comes to governance. Presidential signing statements are another alarm warning us that our system of government is broken. Pierce writes:
Yes, Congress has partly tied his hands, and it has done so by making it harder for him to close Gitmo down. But, even against that, the president argues for the supremacy of the executive branch in such matters. That, coupled with a veto warning that was as empty as a toddler’s threat to run away from home, vitiates any case the president might choose to make that what he really wants to do is to protect the Bill Of Rights. The presidency has been allowed to become a dangerous beast over a number of decades, to the point where anyone who seeks it can rightly be presumed to have at least the spark of lawless authoritarianism in him. And, if that spark is there, the presidency will seek it out and bring it to flame. This president is no different.
Despite the conservatives’ deranged bluster, Obama is not acting differently from any other chief executive we’ve had since the end of World War II according to Pierce. For example, the Obama administration has refused to disclose which criteria are used to kill people with drone missile attacks. The legality of the strike that killed American-born Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen is debatable.
Yesterday, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by ACLU and the New York Times was rejected by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. “Judge Colleen McMahon found that though she agrees that debate on the usage of drone strikes should be made in the open, she is unable to force the government to turn over the documents under FOIA”.
In her ruling, McMahon wrote:
However, this Court is constrained by law, and under the law, I can only conclude that the Government has not violated FOIA by refusing to turn over the documents sought in the FOIA requests, and so cannot be compelled by this court of law to explain in detail the reasons why its actions do not violate the Constitution and the laws of the United States. The Alice-in-Wonderland [sic] nature of this pronouncement is not lost on me; but after careful and extensive consideration, I find myself stuck in a paradoxical situation in which I cannot solve a problem because of contradictory constraints and rules – a veritable Catch-22. I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reason for their conclusion a secret.
From this Pierce concludes:
This is the way all presidents, most especially including this one, want it to be. This is the way the presidency has insisted on operating ever since the Cold War. This is what you get when you don’t listen to old Ike’s warning, when you let the Kennedys run amuck concerning Castro, when you let Lyndon fake an incident in the Tonkin Gulf, when you impeach Nixon over a burglary and not the illegal bombing of Cambodia, when you let everyone skate on Iran-Contra, when you impeach one president over a blowjob but let another one slide for lying the country into a war, for abrogating treaties and violating international law regarding torture, when you let a sociopath like Richard Cheney anywhere near the levers of power, and when you let a president decide which American lives or dies by standards he declines to share with the rest of us. This is what you get. Barack Obama didn’t sell out the Bill Of Rights today because he’s Barack Obama. Barack Obama sold out the Bill Of Rights today because he’s the president of the United States, and that’s now part of the damn job description.
If the job description for the President of the United States is to sell out the Bill of Rights, then America has more problems than just the worst Congress ever. The separation of powers, our whole system of checks and balances, are rotting away. This is the core of our Constitution.
While many of us on the left trust President Obama to do the right thing. The problem is that Obama will only be at the White House for four more years. Instead of having laws to protect us the abuse of power, we are left with having personalities to protect us from the abuse of power. What happens with the next president? Will he or she ignite that “spark”?
Presidents have proved to be unwilling to relinquish any power secured by their predecessors. For example, in 2008, soon-to-be former Vice President Cheney predicted then President-elect Obama would “appreciate” the expansion of presidential power that happened in the Bush administration. Cheney said:
Once they get here and they’re faced with the same problems we deal with every day, then they will appreciate some of the things we’ve put in place…
I believe very deeply, in a strong executive, and I think that’s essential in this day and age. And I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress. I think they’ll find that given a challenge they face, they’ll need all the authority they can muster.
In turn, then-President-elect Obama said four years ago that he was reluctant to investigate Bush-era abuses of power, citing his “belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”
The inability of neither our partisan Congress nor our self-interested executive branch nor our law-twisted courts to investigate or limit or hold accountable the expansion of presidential power demonstrates a systemic flaw on our republic. This growing inability to hold accountable those serving in our nation’s highest offices allows for more potential abuses of power.
When presidents believe it is necessary to sign bills with caveats, because a veto means throwing needed legislation back to a dysfunctional lawmaking body; when the presidency collects more power and all that is needed for the person in the Oval Office to get a “spark” of authoritarianism to burst into flame; when our federal judges cannot find themselves in a “Catch-22” situation making it impossible to hold the executive branch accountable nor require them to explain their secrecy, then we have more problems than just the worst Congress ever. We’re getting closer to the worst government ever.
The nation’s constitutional core is rotting away.
Cross-posted from Daily Kos.