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Trump administration opposes congressional vote over the ‘war on terror’

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis both argued on Monday that wars against extremism abroad do not require a congressional vote, despite considerable bipartisan pushback.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both members of President Trump’s Cabinet argued post-9/11 authorizations for the use of military force (AUMF) from Congress continue to apply. Congress approved the AUMF more than a decade ago in response to Al Qaeda and broader threats internationally, but the Trump administration is insisting that that AUMF applies to ongoing and new efforts in a number of other countries.

“This has been a long, 16-year conflict characterized by a very different kind of warfare,” Mattis said, referring to the ongoing U.S. struggle against extremism and militarization abroad. “The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force, or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat.”

Tillerson argued that the “[current AUMF] remains a cornerstone for ongoing U.S. military operations and continues to provide legal authority relied upon to defeat this threat.”

Tillerson and Mattis also cautioned against rolling back the current authorizations, insisting that they hold contemporary relevance and don’t require an update.

“The 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force, or AUMF, remain a sound basis for ongoing U.S. military operations against a mutating threat,” Mattis said. Tillerson argued that doing away with the current authorizations “would call into question the domestic legal basis for the United States’ full range of military activities against the Taliban, Al-Qaida, and associated forces, including ISIS.”

Both men asserted that, should a new vote occur, the White House has several conditions they want Congress to follow. One is that the 2001 60-page AUMF should not be repealed until an alternative has been approved. That alternative, Tillerson and Mattis argued, should have no geographic or time restrictions, allowing for a liberal interpretation in order to accommodate an ever-shifting war.

“This is an enemy that changes its name, it moves across borders,” Tillerson said. “As we saw with the emergence of ISIS, we start with what might be a fairly limited group of terrorists, who then are able to overrun large territories and amass armies…. That requires a very different use of force than trying to chase and defeat terrorists.”

The controversial 2001 AUMF authorizes the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determined planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” Its 2002 follow-up came before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Both pre-date the rise of ISIS and similar off-shoots, as well as contemporary conflicts around the world.

Collectively, the authorizations are seen as backing for the “war on terror” that has played out over the course of nearly two decades. The Trump administration wants to continue using that justification as the United States continues to ramp up efforts across the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, however, seemed unconvinced by the administration’s arguments on Monday.

“Not one member of this panel was in the Senate when the 2001 AUMF passed, or the 2002 [AUMF] for that matter,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). “No one has had the opportunity to weigh in on it, 16 years later.”

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) queried how long U.S. anti-extremism efforts abroad could go on before Congress was forced to take a new AUMF vote. “In year 30? In year 40? In year 50?” he said. (Kaine and Flake introduced a new AUMF last spring.)

“It’s time for Congress to have a public debate and vote about an authorization for U.S. military action against non-state terrorist groups,” Kaine added. “Many of us believe we’re legally required to do so. Others believe, if not required, we would be wise to do so…. Our troops and the American public deserve an open debate and vote on the extent of military operations.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told the Daily Beast that he held similar views.

“It is frankly amazing,” said Sanders, “that the president is using the 2001 AUMF to wage war against a group, ISIS, which did not exist when it was written and passed.”

A new AUMF is needed to address shifting global realities, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told Tillerson and Mattis on Monday.

“There needs to be more public discussion and light on these activities because I do not think the American people want the United States conducting a global, endless shadow war under the radar, covert and beyond scrutiny,” said Cardin.

Some lawmakers did temper their support for a new AUMF with caveats, demanding some level of support from both sides of the aisle prior to a vote.

“So far Congress has been unable to bridge the gap between those who see a new AUMF as primarily an opportunity to limit the president,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said. “And those who believe constraining the commander-in-chief in wartime is unwise.”

New scrutiny of the current AUMF comes amid fallout over the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger four weeks ago. The U.S. presence in Niger is unrelated to the AUMF, but the ambush has sparked questions about U.S. missions abroad as well as congressional approval and control over anti-extremism operations.

U.S. efforts against extremism are currently ongoing in 19 different countries.

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