KAILUA, Hawaii — President Barack Obama signed a sweeping defense policy law here Thursday that cracks down on sexual assault in the military and eases restrictions on transferring detainees from the federal prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to the custody of foreign countries.
Marking a rare step toward achieving his goal of closing the controversial detention facility, Obama released a statement crediting Congress for relaxing regulations that he said had significantly hindered efforts to transfer detainees who had been cleared to leave.
“The continued operation of the facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners and emboldening violent extremists,” Obama said in the statement. He added that the new provision represents “an improvement over current law and is a welcome step toward closing the facility.”
The new policy gives the Obama administration greater flexibility in accelerating the repatriation process underway to send Guantanamo detainees to their home countries, although it keeps in place the ban on transferring detainees to facilities in the United States.
Obama noted that the law does not eliminate all of what he called “unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers” and said that in certain circumstances, the law violates “constitutional separation of powers principles.”
The Guantanamo provision is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2014, which sets annual military spending levels and also contains a key provision forcing the Pentagon to revamp its sexual assault policies. The comprehensive defense law includes a 1 percent pay increase for service members and sets other combat pay and benefits.
The law contains several provisions that force the Pentagon to change how it deals with cases of sexual assault and rape in the ranks — crimes that have surged in recent years. But it stops short of the broad reforms that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and other advocates have been calling for.
Also Thursday, Obama signed six other laws, including the bipartisan budget agreement negotiated this month by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
In a statement issued Thursday, Ryan said the budget bill doesn’t go as far as he’d like, but that it’s a firm step in the right direction. “This law is proof that both parties can work together,” he said.
Earlier this year, Obama recommitted his administration to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison before the end of his second term. Shutting down Guantanamo was a 2008 campaign goal of his, but his efforts have been repeatedly stymied, including by Congress, which has imposed obstacles including preventing the administration from transferring detainees to prisons and other facilities in the United States.
“For the past several years, the Congress has enacted unwarranted and burdensome restrictions that have impeded my ability to transfer detainees from Guantanamo,” Obama said in the statement.
On Thursday, Obama urged Congress to lift restrictions on transferring Guantanamo detainees to U.S. soil, where they could be brought to justice for their crimes. Obama noted that hundreds of other terrorism suspects have been successfully prosecuted in federal courts under previous Democratic and Republican administrations.
“The executive branch must have the authority to determine when and where to prosecute Guantanamo detainees, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests,” Obama said in the statement.
Even with some transfer restrictions lifted, the process of sending detainees to foreign countries remains slow and often occurs on a one-by-one basis as the United States negotiates with the new host countries over monitoring procedures and other security arrangements.
Transfers to Yemen have been particularly difficult, as Yemenis remain the largest single population by nationality at Guantanamo and that nation is a hub for al-Qaida. There is no structure to reintegrate detainees into Yemen’s society and ensure they are not a security risk, although the Obama administration has been in discussions with Yemen about the creation of a rehabilitation center for returned prisoners.
The law also contains a provision meant to force U.S. military services to share the same camouflage patterns in their uniforms. It is intended to end a period in which all the branches tried to come up with their camouflage — with expensive and uneven results.
In 2002, the services shared just two kinds of camouflage: a green pattern for the woods and a brown one for the desert. But then, individual services began to develop their own — and, often, refused to share them. By this year, there were 10 designs in use.
Not all of them worked well. The Army had a “universal” camouflage pattern that was not universal, after all — it didn’t work in Afghanistan. The Air Force had an “Airman Battle Uniform,” which it warned airmen in Afghanistan not to wear in battle. And the Navy had a blue-patterned uniform, which sailors feared would camouflage them only if they fell overboard. Altogether, the services had spent $12 million on uniform design, often duplicating one another’s work.
Then, after a Washington Post story described the proliferation of camouflage, Rep. William Enyart, D-Ill., offered an amendment that would require the services to begin sharing camouflage patterns — the provision included in the law that Obama signed Thursday.
The new law requires the defense secretary to “adopt and field a common combat and camouflage utility uniform or family of uniforms . . . to be used by all members of the Armed Forces.” Under the law, the services can keep their current camouflage patterns as long as they like, but they are prohibited from adopting new ones unless the new patterns are already in use by another service — or intended to be shared by all of them.
The law allows exceptions for uniforms worn by Special Operations troops.
The president signed the laws with little fanfare at his secluded vacation home in Kailua, Hawaii, where he has been spending the holidays with his family. The traveling press pool was not allowed to witness the signing. The White House distributed Obama’s statement to reporters electronically.