At an extraordinary hearing on Capitol Hill last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee debated whether the policy of open-ended U.S. military operations around the world known popularly as the ‘war on terror’ should come to an end, or should continue indefinitely.
The focus of the hearing was the innocuously named Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF). The AUMF was the Congressional resolution adopted immediately after 9/11 authorizing “all necessary military means” against those who planned or aided the terror attacks, later amended to allow strikes against Al Qaeda and “associated forces.” The AUMF language is used by the Obama administration to justify its policy of drone warfare, which has killed more than 3,000 people in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years. It is also the basis for a major expansion of U.S. covert military operations over the past 12 years.
During last week’s hearing Michael Sheehan, the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said that military operations against alleged terrorists would likely continue for “at least 10 to 20 years.” Robert Taylor, the acting general counsel of the Pentagon, said the AUMF allows military action against any group seeking to harm the U.S. or its coalition partners. When asked if this would allow “boots on the ground” in places like Yemen or the Congo, Taylor said yes. Does this mean the battlefield is everywhere, Senators asked? “Yes sir,” said Sheridan, “from Boston to FATA [Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas].”
Even hawkish Senators seemed nonplussed at these extraordinary claims. “The authority … has grown out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed” after 9/11, said John McCain. He found it “disturbing” that the Pentagon wants to continue this authority but said he understands “because basically you have carte blanche” to do anything around the world.
Newly elected Senators seemed genuinely shocked. Angus King of Maine said that the administration’s theory has “essentially rewritten the Constitution here today.” The Pentagon’s interpretation makes the war power of Congress “a nullity.” This gives “unbelievable powers to the president” making it “a very dangerous thing,” said King.
Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana asked if the AUMF allowed intervention in Syria. He pointed out that Al Nusra, one of the rebel groups, is affiliated with Al Qaeda. Could the executive branch use lethal force against the Front, he asked. Sheridan dodged the question. Senator Tim Kaine found the suggestion that the AUMF could justify action in Syria especially disturbing and said he did not want anyone to get the idea that this would be acceptable to Congress.
It was an extraordinary show of Pentagon arrogance, combined with a refreshing expression of Senatorial skepticism.