Senate hears debate on revising 2001 war authorization
May 16, 2013
WASHINGTON — The United States is still at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates, and a law passed in the days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, continues to provide the authority the military needs to strike groups worldwide that threaten the United States, Pentagon officials told Congress on Thursday.
The officials testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing convened to discuss whether the 2001 authorization to use military force against groups or nations that helped carry out the 9/11 attacks should be revised to reflect he broadening of the U.S. fight against radical Islamic terrorists.
Some legislators said the law was being stretched to the point of providing “carte blanche” authorization of strikes against groups that, while hostile to the United States, were not involved in the attacks on New York and Washington.
But Michael A. Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said the Pentagon is “comfortable” with the authorization as structured.
Robert S. Taylor, principal deputy general counsel for the Defense Department, said the United States is not done fighting the organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.
“We believe that there will eventually come a point when our enemy in this armed conflict — al Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces — is defeated and we are no longer in an armed conflict,” he said. “At that point the law enforcement and intelligence professionals will have the lead in our counterterrorism efforts … but that is a point we have not yet reached.”
Taylor and Sheehan said any organized group that aligns itself as a co-belligerent with al-Qaida could be a valid target under the law.
That’s too broad an interpretation, some legislators argued.
“This authorization was about those who planned and orchestrated the attacks of 2011,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain said the law should be revised “in light of the dramatically changed landscape” of the war against terrorism, which has expanded far beyond Afghanistan and begun to rely heavily on the use of targeted strikes by armed drones in various parts of Africa and the Middle East.
“You’ve got carte blanche as to what you are doing throughout the world,” he said.
Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, said he doesn’t oppose striking terrorist groups — just Congress ceding its power to declare war to the president.
“According to your reading, we’ve granted unbelievable powers to the president, and I think it’s a very dangerous precedent,” he said.
But the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said the international laws of war grant the president the authority to order military action against imminent threats regardless of the 2001 authorization.
Levin extracted a promise from the defense officials to provide the list of groups the Pentagon uses to identify al-Qaida affiliates.
Committee ranking member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., warned that revising the 2001 authorization could have unintended consequences on the U.S. fight against terrorism.
“We have a saying in Oklahoma,” he said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Twitter: @Chris Carroll