In a Los Angeles Times article, Julian Barnes reported that the White House had “accept[ed]” the limitations set out in Sen. John McCain's anti-torture bill over the objections of Vice President Dick Cheney. But Barnes failed to note that President Bush reserved the right to override those restrictions in a signing statement that accompanied the bill -- a practice Bush has used to declare his authority to bypass hundreds of other laws.
In a May 11 Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Julian E. Barnes reported that the White House had “accept[ed]” the limitations set out in an anti-torture bill, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), over the objections of Vice President Dick Cheney. But Barnes failed to note that President Bush reserved the right to override those restrictions in a signing statement that accompanied the bill.
In the article, Barnes highlighted the concerns of certain members of Congress regarding the interrogation methods allowed by the Army Field Manual, which is being revised and has yet to be released. Specifically, Barnes cited a provision in the new manual that reportedly “would allow tougher techniques for unlawful combatants than for traditional prisoners of war.” He noted that “lawmakers think that creating different rules for enemy prisoners of war and irregular fighters contradicts the torture ban passed by Congress last year.”
The ban in question -- an amendment to a defense authorization bill -- barred the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of detainees. Sponsored by McCain, the measure established the Army Field Manual as the “uniform standard” for the handling of prisoners in U.S. custody. On October 5, 2005, the Senate passed it with overwhelming bipartisan support.
After threatening for months to veto any legislation that restricted the president's authority over war policy, the White House entered into negotiations with McCain over the provision in December 2005. Meanwhile, Cheney was lobbying in favor of an exemption for the CIA -- a proposal McCain strongly opposed. On December 14, 2005, however, the House passed a nonbinding resolution that endorsed the amendment by a vote of 308-122. A day later, Bush agreed to the bill, as Barnes noted in his article:
Vice President Dick Cheney pressured senators to drop McCain's measure, and the White House threatened last year to veto the defense authorization bill if the torture amendment was not dropped or modified. But McCain won the standoff, and the White House had to accept the limitation.
But in reporting that the Bush administration chose to “accept the limitation,” Barnes overlooked the presidential "signing statement" that accompanied Bush's official approval of the measure. The December 30, 2005, declaration read:
The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of ... protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.
On January 4, The Boston Globe published the first report on the statement, noting that administration officials and legal experts said Bush had essentially reserved the right to waive the restrictions in the McCain bill:
Some legal specialists said yesterday that the president's signing statement, which was posted on the White House website but had gone unnoticed over the New Year's weekend, raises serious questions about whether he intends to follow the law.
A senior administration official, who spoke to a Globe reporter about the statement on condition of anonymity because he is not an official spokesman, said the president intended to reserve the right to use harsher methods in special situations involving national security.
David Golove, a New York University law professor who specializes in executive power issues, said that the signing statement means that Bush believes he can still authorize harsh interrogation tactics when he sees fit.
''The signing statement is saying 'I will only comply with this law when I want to, and if something arises in the war on terrorism where I think it's important to torture or engage in cruel, inhuman, and degrading conduct, I have the authority to do so and nothing in this law is going to stop me,' " he said. ''They don't want to come out and say it directly because it doesn't sound very nice, but it's unmistakable to anyone who has been following what's going on."
In an April 30 article, the Globe revealed that Bush had used presidential signing statements to declare his authority to bypass hundreds of other laws:
Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty ''to take care that the laws be faithfully executed." Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to ''execute" a law he believes is unconstitutional.