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. But in the seventeen years since, the executive branch has interpreted the resolution to apply to a growing number of groups in multiple countries with no connection to the 9/11 attacks.
These wars have been extraordinarily costly: In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan alone, the fighting has killed more than half a million people, created 21 million refugees and displaced persons in the region, and cost the United States six trillion dollars.
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 April 2018, during his Secretary of State confirmation hearing, then CIA Director Mike Pompeo, said that the US would be “better off” if a new AUMF was passed.
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. During the 115th Congress, Sen. Jeff Merkley proposed a bill to check the President’s power by requiring Congress to vote 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 three-year sunset, and a provision that would revoke the authority to use force against particular groups once those groups no longer pose a threat to the United States. This legislation was a reasonable alternative to the Corker-Kaine bill, which codified the abdication of congressional responsibility to authorize and oversee U.S. wars.
During the drafting of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019 (NDAA), an amendment submitted by Congresswoman Barbara Lee to end the 2001 AUMF within 6 months of the passage of the NDAA was passed by voice vote in the appropriations committee. The amendment’s passage came as a shock to leadership and was later stripped from the bill in the Rules committee by then Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. But it highlighted growing congressional frustration, and previewed new efforts in the 116th Congress to repeal the AUMF.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The nature and location of the transnational terrorism threat, as well as our understanding of what’s needed to address it, have changed considerably since 2001. It’s well past time for Congress to reassert its constitutional role in authorizing and overseeing the prudent use of military force. That’s why we support the repeal of the 2001 AUMF and the passage of new time-limited legislation that authorizes the use of military force in specific countries against specifically named groups while enhancing congressional oversight and public transparency.
Call your representatives at (202) 224-3121 to ask them to support legislation to repeal the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs before they take the U.S. to war in any more countries. We’ve spent far too much, with far too little public debate. It has to stop.
Here are some specific things to say:
Ask your senators at (202) 224-3121 to support legislation introduced by Senator Tim Kaine and Senator Todd Young to repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq. The Trump Administration has hinted they could use these zombie authorizations to take the U.S. to war with Iran. We can’t let that happen.
Ask your House representative to support Rep. Barbara Lee’s legislation to repeal the 2001 AUMF, and kickstart a new debate over the kind of counterterrorism legislation our country needs. The current AUMF has been used to to justify military operations from Djibouti to Georgia, and could be interpreted by this administration to take us to war with Iran. That’s the last thing we need.
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