Elana Schor / Guardian Unlimited – 2008-02-02 22:56:26
WASHINGTON (January 29, 2008) — George Bush has resumed his practice of disregarding portions of new laws, quietly reserving the right to build permanent military bases in Iraq, keep Congress in the dark on spying activity and block two accountability measures aimed at private security firms accused of wartime abuses.
As he signed a defence bill into law yesterday, Bush quietly added a “signing statement” that asserts his ability to ignore several parts of the measure. The signing statement is not a new tactic for Bush — he has issued hundreds during seven years in office, many more than his predecessors — but Democrats now are planning restraints on the presidential prerogative.
The fracas over the statements started when Bush used one to open a loophole in a 2005 ban on inhumane treatment of US detainees, creating potential for torture at the Guantanamo Bay prison. Bush’s predilection for politically provocative signing statements has since been especially alarming to both legal scholars and the Democratic majority in Congress.
Bush’s attempt this week to sidestep the permanent bases law, which aims to stop him from creating an indefinite US military presence in Iraq, may become as controversial as the signing statement sidestepping the torture ban.
Such bases are broadly unpopular with Iraqis, who have voiced fears of an ongoing US occupation, and Bush’s political opponents are suspicious of the administration’s intentions along similar lines. Defence secretary Robert Gates this week continued the Bush administration’s serial denials of any plans to build permanent bases.
The new defence bill would prohibit the Pentagon from using any of this year’s budget on base construction in principle, although it does not appropriate or withhold actual funds from such a project.
“President Bush seems to forget that Congress is a co-equal branch of government, not a body whose decisions he can simply dismiss out of hand when he finds them inconvenient,” Democratic congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, who has led the push to prevent lasting bases in Iraq, said through a spokesman.
“With this most recent signing [statement] the president is also sending a dangerous signal to the people of Iraq that the US has a long-term interest in occupying their country, a move that will only enflame the insurgency,” Woolsey added.
Mark Agrast, a member of the American Bar Association’s task force on signing statements, said the limit on permanent bases is the most serious of the four laws that Bush claimed freedom to nullify this week.
“On the merits, for the president to assert that Congress lacks the authority to say there shouldn’t be permanent bases on foreign soil is fanciful at best,” said Agrast, also a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress.
The other three defence provisions singled out by Bush are equally alarming to members of Congress and outside experts. The two new programmes for security contractors gained momentum amid revelations of widespread improper and violent episodes involving employees of Blackwater as well as other private firms operating in Iraq.
Bush asserted the ability to disregard a new contracting commission created to help the US military navigate the challenge of relying on private companies to perform essential jobs. Modelled on a similar defence commission formed after World War II, the effort received unanimous support from both Democratic and Republican senators.
The Pentagon’s inspector general, whose office conducts internal investigations, also endorsed the commission, telling its Democratic authors in a November meeting: “We’re leaning forward in the saddle, we’re committed to this.”
The president appears less committed, however. Bush said in his signing statement that the commission “could inhibit the president’s ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch and to execute his authority as commander-in-chief”.
Democratic senator Jon Tester, a long-time advocate of the commission, blasted Bush for trying to circumvent a law that was drafted to save taxpayers money.
“There’s no gray area here,” Tester said. “The idea that the president would stand in the way of a non-partisan, independent committee to look into waste and fraud by companies like Blackwater and Halliburton in Iraq is inexcusable and it’s irresponsible, and it ought to ruffle a lot of feathers across the country.”
Bush’s statement also seeks to open a loophole in new protections for contractors who blow the whistle on fiscal or criminal abuses committed by their employers.
This legal shield against reprisals was co-written by a senior Republican, Maine senator Susan Collins. “This [provision] closes a troubling loophole in the laws that protect whistleblowers from retaliation,” Collins said in a statement celebrating congressional approval of the protections she crafted.
Despite the potential blow to whistleblower rights, at least one advocate in Washington is hardly cowed by the Bush statement.
“Bush has threatened to veto or promised not to obey every whistleblower rights law that has been proposed or adopted during his administration,” Tom Devine, legal director at the non-profit Government Accountability Project, said.
“The president doesn’t have the authority to cancel these rights,” Devine added, “unless he sends in troops to stop a jury from hearing whistleblower cases”.
In fact, signing statements do not necessarily cancel out laws unless government agencies heed the president’s will before that of Congress. In an independent study last month of 11 Bush signing statements, the government accountability office found that more than half of the laws were being implemented despite challenges from the president.
“[W]e cannot conclude that agency non-compliance was the result of the president’s signing statements,” the study’s authors wrote.
Democratic senator Carl Levin reminded Bush today that the White House is obliged to obey the new laws no matter what rights his new signing statement alleges. One of the rules that Bush targeted required that spy agencies respond to document requests from the armed services committee — which is headed by Levin.
“I understand that the president’s statement did not say that these specific provisions or any other provisions [of the defence bill] are unlawful, nor that the executive branch would not implement these provisions,” Levin said.
“Nevertheless, I believe it is important … to express the view that Congress has a right to expect that the administration will faithfully implement all of the provisions of the [defence bill], not just the ones he happens to agree with,” he added.
Democratic senator James Webb, who led the push for the contracting commission, also declared today that he would press ahead with the panel regardless of Bush’s opposition.
Two Republican senators have joined more than 60 Democrats in both houses of Congress to draft bills that prohibit US courts from using presidential signing statements to interpret laws. Those proposals have received hearings but not yet come to a vote.
In addition to that legislation, Agrast advised both parties in Congress to continue to “keep a close eye” on how agencies treat signing statements.
“They can function as a directive to civil service appointees to not comply with congressional directives,” Agrast said. “That acquiescence is a serious danger and has not been fully investigated.”
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