Obama signs NDAA again, disappoints on Gitmo and civil liberties again

For the second year in a row, the president signs into law a bill he purports to have major problems with

Published January 3, 2013 8:20PM (EST)

This time last year, President Obama said that he had "serious reservations" about certain provisions of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act. But he signed it anyway. This year, the same provisions over which he was so reserved remain in the 2013 version of the bill, along with a number of brand-new problematic amendments. The president threatened a veto on the new bill's prohibitions on closing Guantánamo Bay detention center. But he didn't veto; he signed the bill again on Thursday.

Once again, Obama expressed his misgivings in a signing statement, but stressed that "the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great" to reject the bill, which approved a $633 billion armed forces budget for the 2013 fiscal year. Also approved in the NDAA are controversial provisions that will likely make closing Guantánamo Bay detention center impossible in Obama's presidency, and provisions elsewhere in the act that allow for the indefinite military detention of U.S. citizens.

"It's the second time that the president has promised to veto a piece of a very controversial national security legislation only to sign it," said Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, according to HuffPo. "He has a habit of promising resistance to national security initiatives that he ultimately ends up supporting and enabling."

A chorus of civil liberties advocates echoed Buttar's criticism. The Center for Constitutional Rights put out the following statement:

For the second year in a row, President Obama has caved on his threat to veto this dangerous legislation, which severely restricts his ability to transfer or provided fair trials for the 166 men who remain imprisoned at Guantanamo.  The 2013 NDAA extends restrictions that have been in place for nearly two years, during which zero prisoners have been certified for transfer oversees and zero have been transferred to the U.S. for prosecution.  Once again, Obama has failed to lead on Guantanamo and surrendered closure issues to his political opponents in Congress.  In one fell swoop, he has belied his recent lip-service about a continued commitment to closing Guantanamo.

As I noted here last year, a number of narrow provisions to the NDAA made by the 112th Congress did little to improve its most controversial amendments relating to Gitmo and indefinite detention. A provision put forward by Sen. Dianne Feinstein with the ostensible aim of ending indefinite military detention for U.S. citizens, which was an ineffectual amendment at best, was eventually stripped from the final 2013 NDAA anyway. One minor change was made to shorten the length of the bill's prohibition on transferring Guantánamo detainees to the U.S. to one fiscal year, instead of the open-ended ban in the original version.

Yet, as Kevin Gosztola noted, "There were multiple actions the Obama administration could have taken to close Guantánamo that now become unlikely because Obama signed the NDAA ... The president again chose the path of least resistance."

Despite stating last year that his administration “worked tirelessly to reform or remove the provisions” relating to indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, Obama's attorneys this year quashed federal injunctions made against these provisions as the result of an ongoing lawsuit brought against the president by Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hedges, Daniel Ellsberg and six other plaintiffs including Noam Chomsky and Naomi Wolf. The president's signing statement Thursday unsurprisingly made no such mention of tireless work to remove the controversial provisions.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Barack Obama Civil Liberties Guantanamo Indefinite Detention Ndaa