US president signs controversial defence bill

Barack Obama signs into law new provisions regarding counterterrorism and fresh sanctions against Iran.


Obama said he had ‘serious reservations’ about how the bill may curtail US counterterrorism abilities [GALLO/GETTY]

Barack Obama, the US president, has signed a wide-ranging defence bill into law, putting into place new provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of those suspected of terrorism, as well as imposing fresh sanctions on Iran.

In a statement accompanying his signature to the $662bn bill, Obama said that he was signing it despite having “serious reservations” about the provisions relating to terrorism, contending that politicians in the US congress were attempting to restrict the ability of counterterrorism officials to protect the country.

He argued that recent US successes against al-Qaeda had been possible because counterterrorism authorities had benefited from flexibility on dealing with suspects, which he said the bill called into question.

Administration officials said that Obama only signed the measure on Saturday because certain minimally acceptable changes had been made to the controversial bill that allowed the president’s office to retain certain overarching powers.

Obama’s signature caps months of wrangling over how to handle captured terrorism suspects without violating US constitutional rights. The White House initially threatened to veto the legislation unless certain changes were made.

Among the modifications made at the last minute were the striking of a provision that would have eliminated the executive branch’s authority to use civilian courts to try foreign nationals in terrorism cases.

The new law now requires military custody for any suspect who is allegedly a member of al-Qaeda or “associated forces” and involved in planning, or attempting to carry out, an attack against the US or its allies.

The president, or a designed subordinate, has the power to waive the military custody requirement by certifying to congress that such a move would be in the interest of national security.

The White House also pushed politicians to change a provision that would have denied US citizens suspected of terrorism the right to trial and could have subjected them to indefinite detention.

Congress eventually dropped the military custody requirement for US citizens and lawful US residents.

“My administration will not authorise the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens,” Obama said in the signing statement.

“Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

Despite the changes, officials say serious concerns remain about the implications of the law.

Robert Mueller, the director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has said that the measure would inhibit his agency’s ability to persuade those suspected of involvement in terrorism to co-operate immediately and provide critical intelligence.

New Iran sanctions

The bill also imposed tough new sanctions against Iran’s central bank and financial sector, marking the sharpest economic confrontation between Washington and Tehran yet.

Officials said Obama signed the bill despite concerns it could complicate his bid to build an international front against Iran.

The sanctions require foreign firms to make a choice between either doing business with Tehran’s oil and financial sectors or central bank, or with the US economy and financial sector.

Foreign central banks which deal with the Iranian central bank on oil transactions could also face similar restrictions under the new law, which has sparked fears of damage to US ties with Russia and China.

Obama said in a statement issued as he signed the bill that he was concerned the measure would interfere with his constitutional authority to conduct foreign relations by tying his hands in dealings with foreign governments.

The bill, which passed with wide majorities in Congress, did reserve some flexibility for Obama, granting him the power to grant 120 day waivers if he judges it to be in the national security interests of the US.

Senior US officials said Washington was engaging with its foreign partners to ensure the sanctions can work without harming global energy markets, and stressed the US strategy for engaging with Iran was unchanged by the bill.

EU-Iran talks

Earlier on Saturday, a European Union foreign policy spokesman said the bloc was open to meaningful talks with Iran provided there are no preconditions on the Iranian side.

The EU statement was in response to remarks by Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, the Iranian ambassador to Germany, who announced that Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is to send a letter soon to the EU’s foreign policy chief to arrange a new round of negotiations over the country’s disputed nuclear programme.

EU foreign policy spokesman, Michael Mann, said in an email to the Reuters news agency that Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, wrote to Jalili in October and had not yet had a response.

“We continue to pursue our twin-track approach and are open for meaningful discussions on confidence-building measures, without preconditions from the Iranian side,” he said. 

Attar did not say when the letter would be sent. His comments were reported by the semi-official Mehr news agency on Saturday.

All talks between Iran and major powers, including the latest round in January in Istanbul, have failed so far to achieve any tangible result.

The main reason is that Iran has constantly rejected the key Western demand – suspension of its uranium enrichment plan as a sign of goodwill until the peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear programmes are proven.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies