On Rob’s recommendation, I’ve started reading Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill, which tells the story of how the U.S. created a largely secret, largely unaccountable force capable of executing targeted assassinations and projecting lethal force in any country around the world.
As it happens, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing last week at which top Pentagon officials reasserted the premise underlying this historic expansion of executive power and military prerogative. At issue is the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, passed on Sept. 14, 2001. The question was whether the resolution, which authorized force against “those who planned, authorized, committed or aided” the Sept. 11 attacks, should be revised to extend to a new generation of terrorists without a clear connection to 9/11.
John McCain said he wanted to expand the AUMF to cover the “dramatically changed landscape that we have in this war on Muslim extremism and Al Qaeda and others.” Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he thought the AUMF was sufficient authorization for anything the military wanted to do. Lindsey Graham spent his questions seeking assurance that the Pentagon agreed with him. Excerpts from a transcript of the hearing:
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Do you agree with me, the war against radical Islam, or terror, whatever description you like to provide, will go on after the second term of President Obama?
MICHAEL SHEEHAN (Asst. Sec. of Defense): Yes, sir. I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: So, from your point of view, you have all of the authorization and legal authorities necessary to conduct a drone strike against terrorist organizations in Yemen without changing the AUMF.
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Yes, sir, I do believe that.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: OK. Could we send military members into Yemen to strike against one of these organizations? Does the president have that authority to put boots on the ground in Yemen?
ROBERT TAYLOR (Acting general counsel, DoD): Under domestic authority, he would have that authority.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I hope that Congress is OK with that. I’m OK with that. Does he have authority to put boots on the ground in the Congo?
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Yes, sir, he does.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Would you agree with me the battlefield is wherever the enemy chooses to make it?
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Yes, sir, from Boston to the FATA [the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan].
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: I couldn’t agree with you more. We’re in a-do you agree with that, General?
BRIG. GEN. RICHARD GROSS: Yes, sir. I agree that the enemy decides where the battlefield is.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: And it could be anyplace on the planet, and we have to be aware and able to act. And do you have the ability to act, and are you aware of the threats?
MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Yes, sir. We do have the ability to react, and we are tracking threats globally.
So the enemy “decides where the battlefield is,” but who decides who the enemy is? The AUMF defines the targets as organizations behind the attacks of 9/11, or those who harbor them. Statements given to the committee expand that group to include al-Qaida’s “co-belligerents” and “associated forces.”
The next senator called to question the panel was Angus King, I-Me., who I’ve liked since he was governor of Maine:
SEN. ANGUS KING: Gentlemen, I’ve only been here five months, but this is the most astounding and most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I’ve been to since I’ve been here. You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution here today. The Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, clearly says that the Congress has the power to declare war. This-this authorization, the AUMF, is very limited. And you keep using the term “associated forces.” You use it 13 times in your statement. That is not in the AUMF. And you said at one point, “It suits us very well.” I assume it does suit you very well, because you’re reading it to cover everything and anything. And then you said, at another point, “So, even if the AUMF doesn’t apply, the general law of war applies, and we can take these actions.” So, my question is: How do you possibly square this with the requirement of the Constitution that the Congress has the power to declare war?
King didn’t get much of an answer, in my reading, at least. But the discussion raises a question I hope to ask Ed Markey and Gabriel Gomez, among others: How does the “war on terror” end? The answer that now springs to mind: When Congress repeals the AUMF.