WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Friday reluctantly signed into law a military-funding bill that limits him from transferring terrorism detainees from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the U.S. or foreign countries, but he signaled that he may get past the restrictions by using non-Pentagon resources to get the job done.
Even as he reserved that right, it wasn’t immediately clear to what degree the president still may capitulate to political pressure between now and his 2012 re-election campaign to keep detainees off U.S. soil and out of civilian courts.
The development also left uncertain what U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder would do about the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other Guantanamo captives accused of plotting and funding the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, as well as training the hijackers of the commercial aircraft involved.
Holder initially wanted to prosecute them in federal court in lower Manhattan, not far from Ground Zero, a choice that angered conservatives and some victims’ families.
In a harshly worded signing statement to Congress accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act, Obama said that the law’s limits on detainee transfers represent “a dangerous and unprecedented challenge to critical executive branch authority” and that any attempt to block the use of federal courts to try terrorists “undermines our nation’s counterterrorism efforts and has the potential to harm our national security.”
He similarly criticized a provision that would add new hurdles to using defense funds to transfer detainees to the custody of foreign countries. He said such certification requirements “would hinder the conduct of delicate negotiations with foreign countries and therefore the effort to conclude detainee transfers in accord with our national security.”
Obama said his team will “seek repeal of these restrictions, will seek to mitigate their effects, and will oppose any attempt to extend or expand them in the future.”
He didn’t say explicitly that he will look to use money or equipment from the State, Justice or Homeland Security departments to get around the new restrictions.
But Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that’s what’s implied.
Anders said if the legislation had completely banned the transfer of detainees to the U.S. or foreign countries, it would have been unconstitutional, and Obama would have said so.
Obama had little choice but to sign H.R. 6523 because it releases money needed to keep the military funded as it winds down two wars.