Three days after the September 11th terror attacks, the House and Senate passed the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF) with near-unanimous approval. In just sixty words, the 2001 AUMF granted then-President George W. Bush sweeping authority to retaliate against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Since the perpetrators of the attacks were not yet known, the 2001 AUMF used broad language, authorizing force against those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” in the attacks and those who “harbored” the attackers. In the seventeen years since, however, the executive branch has interpreted the resolution to a wide variety of groups in multiple countries with no connection to the 9/11 attacks.
The lack of specificity, geographic boundaries, and sunset provision in the 2001 AUMF has enabled three administrations to interpret the authorization in a manner that effectively cedes to the President the congressional role of authorizing military action. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report revealed that the 2001 AUMF has been used to justify at least 37 U.S. military activities in fourteen countries, including detentions in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and training operations in the Philippines.
The Constitution was crystal clear in giving Congress – and not the Executive Branch – the right to declare war. The president may send U.S. armed forces into conflict after a declaration of war, following a national emergency predicated upon an attack, or after receiving “specific statutory authorization” from Congress. The executive branch claims the 2001 AUMF provided such explicit congressional authorization for these 37 operations by authorizing force against “associated forces” of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, the term associated forces does not appear anywhere in the 2001 AUMF text.
President Trump has maintained the broad interpretation of the legislation used by his predecessors. In an August 2017 letter to Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, the administration asserted it had “sufficient legal authority to prosecute the campaign against al-Qaeda and associated forces, including against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” under the 2001 AUMF. In October 2017, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to voice their opposition to rewriting the 16-year-old law. In December 2017, President Trump wrote a letter to Congress using the 2001 AUMF to justify operations targeting al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces, including ISIS.
In March 2018, the Trump Administration submitted a report to Congress, which said that the 2001 AUMF provided the domestic legal justification for limited strikes against Syrian government forces and pro-Syrian government forces to “counter immediate threats to U.S. or partner forces while engaged in the campaign to defeat ISIS.”
Recently, several members of Congress have pushed to curtail the administration’s broad interpretation of its powers under the 2001 AUMF. Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) have introduced an alternative to the current AUMFs, but rather than rein in the President, it codifies the abdication of congressional responsibility to authorize and oversee U.S. wars. Sen. Jeff Merkley has proposed a more responsible alternative to the Corker-Kaine bill. The bill checks the President’s power by requiring a vote in Congress before the President uses military action in other countries or against other groups. The Merkley proposal also includes strong reporting requirements to both Congress and the public, a sunset and reauthorization process after three years, and a provision allowing Congress to revoke the authority to use force against particular groups once those groups no longer pose a threat to the United States.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Congress has abdicated its constitutional responsibility to declare war. Existing law has been used to authorize the use of force all across the globe, unnecessarily sending American troops into harm's way. The 2001 AUMF has long outlived its post-9/11 purpose. It's time to replace the resolution with a responsible solution. Call your senators at (202) 224-3121 to ask them to support Sen. Merkley's resolution. Be sure to mention:
- The current AUMF has been used to to justify military operations from Djibouti to Georgia and may be interpreted by this administration to justify war with Iran.
- Constant overextension of the United States military leaves the country vulnerable to pressing national security threats.
- The Merkley bill includes a sunset provision that requires Congressional certification every 6 months and reauthorization every 3 years, limiting the potential for another war that drags on 17 years
- The Corker-Kaine Bill Would Codify, not End, the Forever War – By Elizabeth Goitein, Defense One
- Senator Merkley’s Smart New Alternative AUMF Proposal – By Heather Brandon-Smith, Just Security
- An ISIS AUMF: Where We Are Now, Where to Go Next, and Why It’s So Important to Get It Right – by Heather Brandon-Smith, Just Security
- Abuse of the 2001 AUMF Weakens our National Security – By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, The Hill