Signing away the Patriot Act

The president is all for renewing the Patriot Act. But that doesn't mean he plans to obey it.

Topics: George W. Bush, War Room, Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt.,

If you’ve been following the way in which George W. Bush uses signing statements as a sort of uncheckable mini-veto of bills he doesn’t like, this news shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: When the president signed legislation renewing the Patriot Act earlier this month, he included a signing statement in which he said that he doesn’t feel obliged to comply with the bill’s requirement that he keep Congress informed about how his administration is using some of the powers it provides.

The Boston Globe has the story, and it’s all depressingly familiar. Bush signs the bill with all the usual fanfare — check out the desk decorated with the “Protecting the Homeland” banner — and then quietly issues a signing statement in which he says he doesn’t think that the legislation he has signed really means what it says. In the earlier case of John McCain’s torture ban, Bush added language saying that he was free to “construe” the ban however he liked, “consistent with the constitutional authority of the president … as commander in chief.” The president put similar language in his Patriot Act signing statement, this time making it clear that he didn’t consider himself bound by the congressional oversight provisions in the act.

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“The executive branch shall construe the provisions of H.R. 3199 that call for furnishing information to entities outside the executive branch … in a manner consistent with the president’s constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch and to withhold information the disclosure of which could impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative processes of the executive, or the performance of the executive’s constitutional duties,” the signing statement says.

As the Globe notes, those congressional oversight provisions were the subject of “intense negotiations in Congress.” Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy calls Bush’s effort to eliminate them with a few strokes of the pen ”nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law.”

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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