Thursday, April 29, 2010

On Presidential Signing Statements

Presidential signing statements thwart Congressional oversight and should be outlawed.

Every once in a while, a news story crops up about yet another lie or omission regarding the briefings the CIA gave to Congressional intelligence committees on their interrogation aka torture program during the Bush years. Marcy Wheeler has been assiduously covering this for months, even years now, gathering together the disparate reports from a mostly disinterested mainstream press.

A few examples will suffice.

There was the time in July 2009 when House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes complained that his committee “has been misled, has not been provided full and complete notifications, and (in at least one occasion) was affirmatively lied to.” Only months before, in a well-publicized press conference, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the CIA of lying to Congress. “They didn’t tell us everything,” Pelosi complained. The Speaker’s complaints followed CIA’s release of a list (PDF) that purported to show how it had briefed Congress over the years on the interrogations program. The list, in Marcy Wheeler’s words, was illustrative of CIA “playing around with its obligation to inform the intelligence committees.” Her deconstruction of the list is juicy reading.

Sometimes, as Wheeler also recently reported, the efforts to sabotage Congressional oversight came from within, as in early 2003 when then-new Senate Intelligence Committee chair Pat Roberts scotched all plans to send a committee staffer to review CIA interrogation sites on behalf of the committee.

What isn’t often mentioned was how the CIA was given the green light to lie and obfuscate by their superiors in the Executive Branch. It’s well known that former President Bush used an unprecedented amount of signing statements during his administration, nullifying dozens, if not hundred of provisions in the bills he signed. A Pulitzer Prize winning account of this was written up by Charlie Savage in the Boston Globe in 2006. One should read the entire article (as well as others on the subject by Dahlia Lithwick and John Dean), but I’m only going to mainly concentrate on the signing statements that targeted Congressional oversight demands.

Although presidential signing statements had been used before George W. Bush's reign of (t)error, this turd of a practice is laying squarely at the feet of our former president. For all of his other failings (real or perceived), President Barack Obama has kept his word, when he indicated he would not rule by presidential signing statement.