PROGRESS REPORT – Earlier this week, President Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008, which included a statute forbidding the Bush administration from spending taxpayer money “to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq.” But Bush quietly attached a signing statement to the law, asserting a unilateral right to disregard the ban on permanent bases in addition to three other measures in the bill.
“Provisions of the act. . . could inhibit the president’s ability to carry out his constitutional obligations. . . to protect national security,” the signing statement read. Reacting to the statement, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Mark Agrast said, “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.”
Bush’s “frequent use of signing statements to advance aggressive theories of executive power has been a hallmark of his presidency,” writes the Boston Globe’s Charlie Savage, who has authored a book on that topic. In 2006, the American Bar Association condemned signing statements as “contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers.” Bush’s latest signing statement was immediately met with anger on Capitol Hill. “I reject the notion in his signing statement that he can pick and choose which provisions of this law to execute,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) added, “Congress has a right to expect that the Administration will faithfully implement all of the provisions” of the law — “not just the ones the President happens to agree with.”
Last November, Bush announced that he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had signed a “Declaration of Principles for a Long-Term Relationship of Cooperation and Friendship” that set the parameters for negotiating an “enduring” U.S. occupation of Iraq. The negotiations have drawn fire in part because the administration said it does not intend to designate the declaration as a “treaty,” and so will not submit it to Congress for approval. Bush’s attempt to waive the ban on permanent bases is seen as one more step in the direction of establishing a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq.
“If Bush is allowed to negotiate a treaty with Iraq that binds the United States under international law, the next president will be handcuffed,” said John Isaacs, Executive Director of the Council for a Livable World. The Guardian notes that permanent bases “are broadly unpopular with Iraqis, who have voiced fears of an ongoing U.S. occupation.” Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), who has led the push to prevent permanent bases, explained that Bush’s statement is “sending a dangerous signal to the people of Iraq that the U.S. has a long-term interest in occupying their country, a move that will only enflame the insurgency.” Speaking on the Senate floor yesterday, Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) said that while administration officials frequently state that they do not intend to permanently occupy Iraq, “this signing statement issued by the President is the clearest signal yet that the Administration wants to hold this option in reserve.”
Among the other provisions in the Defense Authorization Act that Bush asserted an unfounded right to ignore were two accountability measures aimed at private security firms accused of wartime abuses. One of these provisions would establish an independent, bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting. The Pentagon’s inspector general, whose office conducts internal investigations, endorsed the commission’s proposal, telling lawmakers in a November meeting, “We’re leaning forward in the saddle, we’re committed to this.” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) 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.”
The other provision Bush waived would extend whistleblower protections to employees of defense contractors. “The president doesn’t have the authority to cancel these rights,” said Tom Devine, legal director at the non-profit Government Accountability Project, “unless he sends in troops to stop a jury from hearing whistleblower cases.”
The fourth and last provision of the law that Bush sought to ignore was a requirement of the administration to turn over “any existing intelligence assessment, report, estimate or legal opinion” requested by the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees within 45 days. The New York Times writes, “Clearly, this violates the power that Mr. Bush has given himself to cover up an array of illegal and improper actions, like his decisions to spy on Americans without a warrant, to torture prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions and to fire United States attorneys apparently for political reasons.”