Obama signs defense bill but blasts Gitmo restrictions

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President Obama on Wednesday signed a $607 billion annual defense policy bill, even though it includes language that hampers the closure of the Guantanamo Bay military prison.

As a presidential candidate Obama pledged to close the controversial detention facility, but has been thwarted repeatedly by Congress, which opposes transferring detainees to the mainland United States.

In a rare move, the president issued a signing statement blasting provisions in the bill intended to block the president from moving Guantanamo Bay prisoners to facilities within the U.S.

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“I am, however, deeply disappointed that the Congress has again failed to take productive action toward closing the detention facility at Guantanamo,” he said. “Maintaining this site, year after year, is not consistent with our interests as a nation and undermines our standing in the world.”

The White House has pledged to present a final proposal to Congress to shutter the prison before Obama leaves office, but has left open the possibility the president could act on his own if lawmakers object to his plan.

Obama’s statement suggested some Guantanamo provisions in the defense bill might violate the Constitution.

“The executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to the detainees who remain at Guantanamo, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy,” he wrote.

“Under certain circumstances, the provisions in this bill concerning detainee transfers would violate constitutional separation of powers principles.”

The debate over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has served as a battleground over whether Obama can act unilaterally to close down the prison, which still houses 107 inmates.

Republicans in Congress are poised to reject a long-expected plan from the Defense Department for moving detainees to the United States, prompting the White House to raise the possibility of executive action. 

But if Obama acts alone, he would do so in defiance of provisions in the NDAA that explicitly bar him from transferring Guantanamo detainees into the country. 

The measure prevents federal dollars from being used to transfer detainees to U.S. soil or to build or modify a facility on U.S. soil to house them. 

The president has been forced to move prisoners to other countries, a time-consuming process. 

Obama used a photo op to veto the original bill, largely over concerns it used an extra $38 billion in war funding to skirt spending caps. That dispute was ended when Obama signed a two-year budget deal to raise spending caps. 

The White House indicated earlier this month that the president would sign the updated version of the bill. 

“I am therefore signing this annual defense authorization legislation because it includes vital benefits for military personnel and their families, authorities to facilitate ongoing operations around the globe, and important reforms to the military retirement system, as well as partial reforms to other military compensation programs,” Obama said in his statement. 

- Updated at 4:35 p.m.