The Justice Department has declared that President Obama can disregard a law forbidding State Department officials from attending United Nations meetings led by representatives of nations considered to be sponsors of terrorism.
Based on that decision, which echoes Bush administration policy, the Obama administration sent State Department officials to the board meetings of the United Nations’ Development Program and Population Fund in late spring and this month, a department spokesman said. The bodies are presided over by Iran, which is on the department’s terror list, along with Cuba, Sudan and Syria.
The administration’s decision was disclosed in a little-noticed legal memorandum recently posted on the Justice Department Web site.
The law at issue is a fairly narrow one, and presidents of both parties have long objected to such statutes as infringements on their power over foreign relations.
But assertions by the Justice Department that certain laws cannot bind the president have drawn far more attention since the Bush administration, when the Office of Legal Counsel wrote secret opinions authorizing the bypassing of statutes and treaties governing surveillance and the treatment of detainees.
In the new opinion, David Barron, the acting head of the Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that the statute — a restriction Congress imposed in the State Department’s annual budget bill — “unconstitutionally infringes on the president’s authority to conduct the nation’s diplomacy, and the State Department may disregard it.”
His opinion cites many examples of previous administrations of both parties taking a similar view. Among them, Mr. Bush used signing statements to instruct the State Department to interpret identical restrictions as “advisory” rather than mandatory, and his administration sent officials to a Development Program meeting in January.
Justice Department officials pointed out that when Mr. Obama signed the legislation containing the provision in March, he issued a signing statement reserving a right to bypass any portions of the bill that restricted his power to conduct diplomacy.