Senators Discussing War Authorization’s Utility a Welcome Step

This week, BuzzFeed reported that a bipartisan group of senators has been meeting to discuss the utility of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), the law passed in the days after 9/11, which has been used to underpin everything from targeted killing in countries all over the world to Gitmo. These senators, including Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), are considering legislation that would limit, and perhaps repeal, the law.

The AUMF, passed by Congress almost unanimously after 9/11, authorizes the president to

“… use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

The Bush and Obama Administrations have used this as a basis for holding detainees indefinitely in Guantanamo without charge or trial, targeting alleged members of al Qaeda (including with drones) across the world, and other controversial aspects of what was called the war on terror and is now considered the war with al Qaeda.

Many lawmakers have talked about the narrow scope they intended when passing the AUMF – as an authorization to attack and hold accountable those responsible for 9/11 – but the Bush and Obama Administrations have gradually widened the scope.

The Obama Administration has interpreted the AUMF to authorize actions against al Qaeda and its affiliates, such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The list of terrorist groups the administration believes the AUMF covers is secret, despite repeated requests from lawmakers. The legal basis for targeted strikes in countries around the world is also mostly secret. When does the conflict authorized by the AUMF end? The Obama Administration has also not elaborated on this, aside from saying that a threshold will be reached at some point in the future, after which the conflict will end.

The Obama Administration has repeatedly talked about getting away from a war with no end, as the AUMF has been interpreted to authorize. But the president and his administration have taken no concrete steps to moving that process along.

Does the United States need the AUMF to fight al Qaeda and its affiliates? No, it does not. The president can respond to threats to the United States without keeping the country in an endless armed conflict. And indefinite detention is unnecessary, as we’ve seen over and over again. The United States has tried hundreds of terrorism-related cases in federal court and has obtained reams of valuable intelligence from terrorism suspects since 9/11.

The discussion on the utility and scope of the AUMF is a welcome and needed one. More Senators and more of the public need to be taking part in it.


Published on April 4, 2014


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