- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2014

President Obama signed the annual defense policy bill into law Friday, but once again protested the provision that prevents him from closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where suspected terrorist detainees are held.

He hinted, however, that he may claim constitutional powers to transfer some of the detainees even against Congress’s wishes, saying that if he deems the law “violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.”

He’s made the same caveat in signing previous bills, but some analysts have predicted he may be more interested in trying to force a fight in his final two years in office, facing a GOP-controlled Congress and with little time left to make good on his promise to shut the facility.

The bill also includes a number of land-deals, including one that Indian tribes in Arizona say turns sacred land held by the federal government over to a copper mine, which drew criticism from Mr. Obama’s Interior Department secretary.

The land deals took up a quarter of the 1,650-page bill, which was powered through Congress as must-pass legislation in order to provide the Pentagon with new directions and troops the equipment they need as they begin to tackle the renewed terrorist threat in the Middle East from the Islamic State.

Most of the bill is not controversial, but Mr. Obama bristled at the restrictions that have kept him from meeting his promise to close the Guantanamo prison by January 2010.

“I have repeatedly called upon the Congress to work with my administration to close the detention facility at Guantanamo once and for all,” he said, adding there is bipartisan support for the closure. “But instead of removing unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that curtail the executive branch’s options for managing the detainee population, this bill continues them.”

Many congressional Democrats agree with Mr. Obama’s goal of closing the prison, but they handicapped themselves in the debate this year when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid balked at debating the bill on the Senate floor. That left Democrats with a weakened negotiating hand as they worked out a final compromise with House Republicans, who passed a full bill through their chamber earlier in the year, including restrictions on transfers.

House Speaker John A. Boehner claimed victory after Mr. Obama signed the bill, saying it “prevents terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay from being transported to U.S. soil, a move that would be both dangerous and deeply unpopular with the American people.”

“House Republicans will continue to do all we can to protect our national security and support our men and women in uniform, and look forward to working with the president to do the same,” he said.

Congressional negotiators even rejected a change that would have allowed detainees to be brought to the U.S. for emergency medical care, which would save money over the current policy of flying doctors and equipment to Guantanamo Bay. But lawmakers didn’t want to make any exceptions to the ban.

The law allows Mr. Obama to transfer detainees to other countries willing to take them, but only after the Defense Department secretary certifies they aren’t likely to rejoin the terrorists’ fight.

Under those tight rules, Mr. Obama has tried to step up transfers this year — including swapping a handful of Taliban warriors to Yemen in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s return from Taliban captivity.

While Mr. Obama didn’t mention the land deal in his statement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a statement criticizing the provision that would allow a copper mine on lands in Arizona east of Phoenix.

She said the provision “has no regard for lands considered sacred by nearby Indian tribes,” and said it was wrong for Congress to ignore longstanding traditions of consultation with those tribes before striking a deal of this magnitude.

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