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2006-03-27

Bush Signs Statements to Bypass Torture Ban, Oversight Rules in Patriot Act

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When President Bush signed a law banning torture he quietly signed a statement saying he could bypass it. Earlier this month, Bush signed the USA Patriot Act but signed a statement that said he did not consider oversight rules binding. We speak with the Boston Globe reporter who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]

The USA Patriot Act was re-authorized this month after a lengthy bi-partisan effort to include new provisions safeguarding Congressional oversight. The new provisions mandated President Bush to brief Congress about how the FBI was using expanded authorities to search and monitor suspects. But shortly after he signed the bill into effect, Bush quietly issued what is known as a signing statement in which he lays out his interpretation of the law. In this document Bush declared he did not consider himself bound by the oversight provisions. Bush wrote he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosing it would harm foreign relations, national security or his duties as President.

This was not the first such statement to come from the White House. When Congress passed a bill outlawing torture of detainees last year, President Bush quietly released a signing statement in which he affirmed his right to bypass the law if he felt it jeopardized national security. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont said the President"s latest effort represents "nothing short of a radical effort to manipulate the constitutional separation of powers and evade accountability and responsibility for following the law."

  • Charlie Savage, reporter with the Washington bureau of Boston Globe who has written several articles exposing Bush’s signing statements.

Related Links:

"Bush Shuns Patriot Act Requirement" (Boston Globe)

"Bush Could Bypass New Torture Ban" (Boston Globe)

Related Democracy Now! Coverage:

An Imperial President? Bush Claims Right To Ignore New Law Banning Torture (DN!, 1/6/06)

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in our Washington, D.C., studio by Charlie Savage, a reporter with the Boston Globe in the Washington bureau. He’s written a number of pieces exposing these signing statements that don’t see the light of day very much. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Charlie Savage.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Thank you, it’s nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, just explain how these statements work. The President signs the law, and then someone hands him the statement?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Essentially, someone in his office, a lawyer, drafts a statement that gets issued along with the signing of the bill. This is not a proclamation that says, "I’m really glad that I signed the bill; it’s going to help us." It’s a technically legal document that lays out how he’s going to enforce the bill, what it is he says that he signed that day. And previous presidents have issued these, but they’ve never issued them the way President Bush has, both in terms of frequency and in terms of the aggression with which he says, 'I am not bound by this, I'm not bound by that, I will take this law in bits and pieces, I’ll enforce the measures I like, and I have the power as president and commander-in-chief to ignore the provisions I don’t like.’

And so, in this case, in the PATRIOT Act case, all the provisions in which Congress said, ’We’ll give you these powers, we’ll renew this act. But you’ve got to tell us how you’re using them, so we make sure that they’re not being abused,’ he said 'as president and commander-in-chief and the head of the executive branch, I will decide what I tell you, if anything, and that's just what I can do under the Constitution.’

AMY GOODMAN: How often have signing statements been used?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, as I said, previous presidents have done this, going way back in time. The frequency really increased under the Reagan administration. And Clinton also issued a number of them. But President Bush has taken this to an unprecedented level. I think one study showed that through the end of 2004, there were more than 500 provisions of new laws that he had said that he would not consider himself bound to obey, just through the end of his first term. And so, he’s really been aggressive about this, in a new way.

AMY GOODMAN: How much attention have these signing statements gotten? The most recent one, the USA PATRIOT Act, which at first, well, there was a question — there’s a lot of controversy about it. Explain how that happened, the more recent one, then we’ll go back to torture.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: How the signing statement happened or how we —?

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, how much attention it has gotten and what it means for senators who said that they weren’t going to sign off on this unless they got certain concessions, and then this eviscerating, the signing statement eviscerating these concessions.

CHARLIE SAVAGE: I understand. Well, initially, very little attention. No one is used to paying attention to these things. These are not something that’s been regularly a part of the political fabric of our country. The traditional way that it happens is if a president gets a bill that he doesn’t like, he either swallows the provisions he doesn’t like and signs the whole thing, or he vetoes it, because he says, 'I can't live with this,’ and then Congress can try to override the veto or not, depending on the strength. That’s how traditionally it’s supposed to work under the Constitution. And the Bush team has never vetoed a single bill in the five years he’s been president now. Instead, they’ve used these signing statements to say that 'we will take, you know, the bits that we want and ignore the other parts.' And no one has been used to looking at these things.

So, Bush issued this signing statement on the PATRIOT Act on March 9th, the same day that he signed the bill. But it went almost unnoticed. There were a few legal specialist blogs that sort of took note of it in a wry way. I wrote this article that came out in Friday’s paper. And there was a huge response, as people realized what he had done again. But that was the first time in the mainstream media, at least, that it’s received any kind of attention.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the previous signing statement happened over New Year’s. Can you talk about that, around torture, specifically, what the bill says, what the ban on torture is about, what’s called the McCain bill, and then, what the signing statement says?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Absolutely. Well, you may recall that there was a huge controversy in Congress last year with John McCain trying to make clear in federal law that it is illegal to torture, for a U.S. official to torture a detainee in U.S. custody, no matter where that detainee is, anywhere in the world. I think most specialists would say that was already illegal. But the Bush administration had come up with some contorted arguments about why maybe they could get around it if it was outside the U.S. border. And so, there was a long fight in Congress in which McCain was trying to get this passed. And Bush kept threatening to veto it and fought it hard. Dick Cheney personally came to Congress to say, "Don’t do this, don’t do this." But Republicans came together with Democrats; they passed this overwhelmingly in both chambers. It was such a show of force in both chambers that Bush could not veto it. They had the strength to override the veto. So then, he signed the bill.

He invited McCain into the White House and said, 'Oh, this is a good thing. It's going to help us with our image,’ even though he had been fighting it all along. And then, after McCain had left and everyone had gone home, he again issued another one of these signing statements. This was on the Friday, late in the evening before — on the weekend of New Year’s Eve, when everyone had gone home, essentially, saying, 'By the way, I'm commander-in-chief, and I don’t really have to pay attention to this if I don’t want to. If it’s the national security is involved, I can do whatever I want.’ And again, you know, it was New Year’s weekend; no one really paid attention.

And I saw in a legal blog, when I came into work the next week, that someone was taking note of this and started exploring it. And sure enough, that’s what he had said, and that’s what it meant. I called the White House and asked them for an explanation, and they put me on the phone with someone to serve as their spokesman, who said, 'Yes, you know, we intend to follow this law, but a situation could arise where we don't have to.’ And so, that’s what it means. And you know, there was a sense of outrage over that, including among Republican senators like Lindsey Graham and John Warner and especially John McCain: 'We had negotiated this. This is what it means. We passed the law. You've got to follow it.’ And the question with both of the PATRIOT Act and the torture thing is, this is just a piece of paper in which he says, 'I don't have to do this if I don’t want to.’ But it’s not proof that he’s not going to do it, and it’s not proof that he hasn’t done it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can Congress do anything about this?

CHARLIE SAVAGE: Well, that’s a good question. If they have the political will, they can try to pass more, tougher legislation. They can try to withhold funding for things. They could launch investigations. Right now, Congress is, however, dominated by the same party as the President. They are not particularly willing to, or have not proven themselves particularly willing until now, with a few exceptions, to be too aggressive in conducting oversight on what he’s doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Charlie Savage, I want to thank you for being with us. And we will link at democracynow.org to your stories at the Boston Globe.

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