President Barack Obama pauses during a news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP
WASHINGTON — The 113th Congress passed 296 bills from 2013 to 2015, making it one of the least productive in American history. As the holiday season commenced, however, President Obama was busy signing several controversial bills into law.
The timing of the bills’ signing — Dec. 19 — did not leave much room for scrutiny by the American public or the press. And that may have been the point, as these bills offer support for Syrian rebels, disrupt Native American land rights, bolster the U.S. relationship with Israel, and protect domestic spying.
Renewal of the NDAA
On Dec. 19, President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2015, which specifies how much the U.S. Department of Defense will spend during Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, which runs from Oct. 1, 2014 to Sept. 30, 2015. The act authorizes $578 billion in spending, including $496 billion to be spent by the Pentagon in the upcoming year and $64 billion for overseas wars.
The act also includes a section that authorizes the government to provide assistance to “the vetted Syrian opposition.” It states that it will help defend the Syrian people from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and secure territory controlled by opposition forces. It also claims to help defend the U.S. from “terrorists in Syria,” and promote conditions for “a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.”
Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank, has strong objections to this course of action.
Rather than sending in bombers, funding fighters, and perpetuating the war, the U.S. should first attempt to de-escalate hostilities in order to bring the conflict in Syria to an end, Bennis explains in a forthcoming article for MintPress News. Once the conflict is at an end, the U.S. should then focus on diplomacy. She concedes that the “huge task” would not be “politically easy,” partly because of weapons lobbies in the U.S.
The act also aspires to restrict construction of new facilities at the detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; assist the government of Iraq, “including Kurdish and tribal security forces,” in the fight against ISIS; and provide Pakistan with $1 billion for its efforts in fighting the Haqqani network, a Taliban group with links to al-Qaida, in the country’s tribal areas.
Four days before Obama signed the NDAA into law, Bruce Riedel, director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and a 30-year veteran of the CIA and advisor on the National Security Council, published a report stating that Pakistan has, in fact, been “providing the Taliban with safe haven and sanctuary… for over a decade.”
He also wrote that the “Haqqani network keeps an office in Rawalpindi [a city next to Pakistan’s capital] near the ISI headquarters. General Sharif [Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff] supervises all of this, just as his predecessors did before him. The general, not the prime minister, makes Afghan policy.”
According to Riedel’s analysis, it seems that as far as Pakistan is concerned, the NDAA’s efforts are misplaced.
The act also gives 2,400 acres of sacred Native American land located in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona to Resolution Copper, a mining company. Resolution Copper plans to excavate a copper deposit located in the area, despite protest from the Apache tribe in the area. MintPress News’ Carey L. Biron reported in December that Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, told him in an email: “This is the antithesis of democracy. We are extremely disappointed by the lack of transparency and lack of opportunity to comment on this provision.”
Further, it was reported that Section 3003 of the NDAA, the “Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation” section, which trades the land, was never discussed publicly — it was only revealed when the House of Representatives passed the deal on Dec. 4.
The NDAA has come under heavy fire in the past because of a provision (section 1021, b, 2) that allows the U.S. government to indefinitely detain people “who are part of or substantially support Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States.”
Chris Hedges, a former New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner; Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971; Noam Chomsky, famous linguist and political commentator; and others, filed a lawsuit (Hedges v. Obama) against the Obama administration, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and members of Congress to challenge the provision in 2012.
Initially, Hedges was successful. When the case was heard in New York District Court, Judge Katherine Forrest ruled that the phrases “substantially supported,” “associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners,” and “directly supported” were so vague that journalists, activists, and others could not be sure they would not be arrested under the law.
The judge asked the Department of Justice to make assurances to the court that the law would not be used to violate the aforementioned First Amendment rights, but it did not. Thus, Forrest ruled that the government refrain from applying section 1021 of the NDAA.
That decision was appealed by the DOJ to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. This court overturned Forrest’s ruling, and said that Hedges et al. could not challenge the statute because it “simply says nothing about the government’s authority to detain citizens.”
Obama also signed the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014 on Dec. 19. The bill is the fruit of the lobbying efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The lobbying group which advocates for pro-Israel policies released a statement after the act was signed into law, saying: “[T]he measure lays the foundation for expanded U.S.-Israel cooperation in a wide variety of spheres, including defense, intelligence, homeland security, cyber security, energy, water, agriculture, and alternative fuel technologies.”
While AIPAC is pleased with the bill’s passage, not everyone shares that sentiment. Clovis Maksoud, a former ambassador and permanent observer of the League of Arab States at the United Nations and its chief representative in the United States, reported for Middle East Monitor that the bill legally commits the U.S. to making Israel “stronger than all its opponents combined.”
Noting that the bill increases Israel’s stockpile of American weapons to be used in an emergency from a value of $200 million to $2 billion, Maksoud explained:
“It is well-known that Israel used these US weapons in its latest war on Gaza; the only requirement was for it to inform the Pentagon that it would need to use them. Thus, Israel has access to two arsenals; one built from US military support which provides it with the most up-to-date weapons, and the other from being handed the keys to American reserves. Is one arsenal not enough for Israel to continue to escalate its hostility and seize more Palestinian land by means of its settlement expansion?”
Maksoud speculated that the bill was passed to contrast momentum by European states toward recognizing Palestinian statehood. In October, the U.K. voted in the House of Commons to recognize Palestine as a state and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven stated that the Scandinavian country would do the same. Yet Maksoud noted that while the European approach represents a turning point, “these votes as yet are merely symbolic.”
Meanwhile, although both American and Israeli intelligence have stated that they do not believe Iran has even decided to build a nuclear weapon, the act also states that the “Government of Iran continues to pose a grave threat to the region and the world at large with its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Domestic spying continues unabated
Another bill that was passed on Dec. 19 was the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, which funds U.S. intelligence agencies.
According to Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich) and privacy advocates, the bill endorses warrantless collection of phone and other electronic data from Americans. Amash wrote a letter prior to the bill’s passage to other members of Congress stating, “the intelligence reauthorization bill… for the first time statutorily authorizes spying on U.S. citizens without legal process.”
In particular, he described section 309 of the bill as “[o]ne of the most egregious sections of law I’ve encountered during my time as a representative: It grants the executive branch virtually unlimited access to the communications of every American.”
Likewise, John Napier Tye, a former State Department Internet policy official and whistleblower, stated that language in the bill allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to do whatever it wants with the information.
“The NSA can take everything an American does online [and] write its own rules for how to share it with foreign governments and with the FBI, allowing a huge amount of American data to [be used to] prosecute Americans with no court oversight,” Tye said.