Why President Obama Should Veto the NDAA

The entrance to Camp 5 and Camp 6 at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay detention center is seen at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, June 2014.

President Barack Obama has made it clear that he will veto the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, the massive $604 billion defense spending authorization bill that Congress passed in early October and sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

Specifically, the president objects to two provisions of the act: First, the NDAA allows the Pentagon to circumvent the budget caps created by the Budget Control Act of 2011, or BCA, that apply to all other federal agencies, despite the fact that no other agency’s budget has experienced as much growth as fast as the Pentagon’s did in the decade before the BCA went into effect. Moreover, the NDAA funnels an additional $38 billion into the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations war funding, or OCO, budget, even though that budget already has enough funds to wage the wars the United States is currently conducting in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Second, the bill prohibits the use of funds to transfer or release prisoners from Guantanamo Bay until December 31, 2016—essentially, the end of President Obama’s two terms in office. This provision effectively prevents the president from carrying out his campaign pledge to close the prison at Guantanamo.

However, there are other provisions in the defense bill that also merit a presidential veto. For example, the NDAA expands the National Sea Based Deterrence Fund, which allows the Navy to pay for a new class of ballistic missile submarines outside its own budget. This allows the Navy to avoid having to make the hard choices necessary for it to stay within its own budget allowance. Moreover, if this provision becomes law, there is no doubt that the Air Force will seek a similar exemption for purchasing land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, and bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

The bill also contains several provisions regarding ballistic missile defense, or BMD, that conflict with Pentagon policies. It authorizes the Department of Defense to purchase 18 additional Aegis BMD missiles, or 45 percent more of these missiles than the military believes it needs. Furthermore, the provision requires the Pentagon to construct a site to deploy a missile defense system on the United States’ East Coast, even though the Pentagon argues that these new systems are not necessary to guard against potential threats from Iran or North Korea.

In addition, the congressionally passed NDAA says that keeping all three legs of the nuclear triad—bombers, land-based ICBMs, and sea-based submarine-launched ballistic missiles—should be the highest-priority mission for the Defense Department, even though the Cold War is over and the United States has more than enough nuclear weapons to wipe out any potential rival. Moreover, the United States has more relevant and immediate threats to consider from both China and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

Finally, the bill prevents the Defense Department from conducting another round of base closures, even though the military has about 20 percent excess base capacity that is costing American taxpayers at least $10 billion per year.

On the other hand, the NDAA does have some provisions that the administration should support. For example, it limits the interrogation techniques that can be used by any government agent or contractor to those approved in the U.S. Army Field Manual, which among other things bars waterboarding, correctly considering it torture.

The bill also establishes a much-needed new military retirement system that allows those veterans who do not serve at least 20 years to receive some benefits, while decreasing the incentives for those who reach the 20-year mark to retire immediately.

President Obama ought to insist that a revised version of the NDAA not only eliminate the objectionable provisions but also retain the positive ones. In addition, he needs to direct his secretary of defense to immediately release the 52 prisoners from Guantanamo who have already been cleared for release.

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.