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Obama Approves Defense Bill Despite Veto Threats

U.S. President Barack Obama looks at his notes during remarks to reporters after meeting with congressional leaders at the White House in Washington, December 28, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama looks at his notes during remarks to reporters after meeting with congressional leaders at the White House in Washington, December 28, 2012.
U.S. President Barack Obama has signed a $633 billion defense bill into law, despite threats by the White House to veto the legislation because it hinders efforts to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The president expressed reservations about the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 after signing it late Wednesday in Hawaii, but said he could not stand in its way.

“Our constitution does not afford the president the opportunity to approve or reject statutory sections one by one. I am empowered either to sign the bill, or reject it, as a whole. In this case, though I continue to oppose certain sections of the Act, the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore,” Obama said in a statement issued by the White House.

The bill tightens sanctions on Iran and boosts security at diplomatic missions around the world – two priorities for the Obama administration, which is trying to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear pursuits and is grappling with the aftermath of a deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

But the new law also includes two provisions that complicate the president's pledge to close the Guantanamo detention center.

Obama said he continues to oppose a provision that renews the bar against using appropriated funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the United States. He also objected to a provision that restricts the executive branch’s authority to transfer detainees to a foreign country.

“The Congress designed these sections, and has here renewed them once more, in order to foreclose my ability to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility,” Obama said. “I continue to believe that operating the facility weakens our national security by wasting resources, damaging our relationships with key allies, and strengthening our enemies.”

The president signed an executive order shortly after taking office in 2009 promising to close the prison whose long detention of terrorism suspects, often without charge or trial, has become a stain on the U.S. human rights record. But that agenda was pushed back as Obama grappled with health care reform, the economic crisis and instability in the Middle East.

Most of the prisoners held at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay were captured in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Of the nearly 800 detainees held there, about 170 remain as the U.S. grapples with how to prosecute, release or hold them.

Human Rights Watch criticized the president Wednesday for not doing more to fulfill his pledge to close the facility.

“The administration blames Congress for making it harder to close Guantanamo, yet for a second year President Obama has signed damaging congressional restrictions into law,” said Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The burden is on Obama to show he is serious about closing the prison.”

The New York-based rights group said Obama did have a choice, and that if he vetoed the 2013 defense bill, last year’s bill would still be in effect.

The new legislation sets the defense agenda for the year and authorizes spending amounts for different programs but does not appropriate the money.

The bill approves the allocation of $528 billion to the Defense Department, $17 billion to the Energy Department's defense and nuclear programs and $88 billion for overseas contingency operations, including the war in Afghanistan.
It calls for as many as 1,000 additional Marines to be deployed to embassies and consulates around the world.

The sanctions targeting Iran focus on the country's energy, shipping and shipbuilding sectors in an effort to pressure the government to stop enriching uranium, a key component in nuclear weapons.

The defense bill also approves a pay rise for military personnel and eases restrictions on disseminating material from the Broadcasting Board of Governors within the United States, including content from the Voice of America.