Let's End Congress's Blanket Authorization of Force

It's gone on 13 years too long


It may sound hard to believe, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., isn't always wrong–at least when he states the obvious: "9/11 is a long time ago," he said Wednesday, "and it's something that needs to be looked at again."

The "it" is the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution, or AUMF, adopted three days after the terror attacks, and now going on its lucky 13th year. It's been in effect nearly twice as long as the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing Vietnam, what was "America's Longest War"–until the 21st century, that is.

On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress authorized the president to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks and those who "harbored" them. Two successive administrations have since turned the 60 words of the AUMF's operative clause into what journalist Gregory Johnsen calls "the most dangerous sentence in U.S. history"–a writ for a war without temporal or spatial limits.

The last time the Senate held hearings on the AUMF, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked the Pentagon's civilian special operations chief, Michael Sheehan, "does [the president] have the authority to put boots on the ground in the Congo?" Answer: "Yes, sir, he does."

Predictably, the hawkish Graham was totally okay with that. "The battlefield is wherever the enemy chooses to make it," right? Right, said Sheehan: "from Boston to the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan]."

Asked how much longer the war on terrorism will last, Sheehan replied, "at least 10 to 20 years." So presumably the AUMF can serve as the basis for Chelsea Clinton's "kill list" in 2033, after she trounces George P. Bush.

Lyndon Johnson once compared the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to "Grandma's nightshirt" because "it covers everything." Even LBJ might have marveled at how the last two administrations have stretched the post-9/11 AUMF.

Under the theory that "the United States is a battlefield in the war on terror," the Bush administration invoked it to justify warrantless wiretapping and military detention of American citizens on American soil. The Obama administration cites it as legal authority for the extrajudicial killing of Americans via remote-control.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be taking another look at the AUMF this week. The hearing's title, "Authorization For Use Of Military Force After Iraq And Afghanistan," hints at a preordained conclusion: that an updated authorization is needed. Ranking Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee wants to be sure the executive branch has "all the tools and capabilities" it needs to address "threats that did not exist in 2001."

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the sole member of Congress to vote "no" on the original AUMF, has a better idea: end it, don't mend it. Joined by libertarian-leaning, antiwar Republicans like Reps. Justin Amash and Walter Jones, she's introduced legislation to repeal the AUMF.

Two imperial presidents in a row have treated that authorization like a permanent delegation of congressional war power to the president. Their successors would no doubt do the same with any new "tools and capabilities" they're given.

Without the AUMF, presidents still retain the constitutional power to "repel sudden attacks," as James Madison put it. And if they think groups like al-Shabaab or Boko Haram demand a more sustained military response, they'll be free to make that case to Congress. But delegating new authorities in advance might permanently change our constitutional default setting from peace to war.

Madison also said that "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." We're now into our second decade running that experiment; how much longer do we want to risk proving him right?

This column originally appeared in the Washington Examiner.

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  1. If Harry Reid said he wants to abolish the AUMF, then that’s the smartest thing he’s ever said.

    If Obama used it to justify executing and American without a trial, then it can be used to justify almost anything.


  3. Yes, I question the legality of the WoT AUMF, anyway. The one for Iraq is arguably a lawful declaration of war under a different name, but this one seems to me to be an unlawful delegation of power.

    1. Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $500 a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.

  4. GM is alive! Osama is dead!

    Kill the AUMF! Recall all the cars!

    1. Just caught that new John Oliver show on HBO the other day, and he was tearing into GM something fierce. Quite funny, but unfortunately he didn’t make the final leap to “and of course the government bailed them out”.

      Still, I laughed out loud a few times. I’d check it out again. No partisan bullshit, at least in the bit that I saw.

      1. I like Oliver, and the bits of the new show I’ve seen have been pretty hilarious, but there is a whiff of Daily Show “ONE.OF.US” mentality that I’m afraid will end up turning it in to a DS clone.

        He had Bill Nye on recently and you can imagine just how hilarious that was.


        1. See, I think that one was important because Oliver accidentally admitted it doesn’t matter how many scientists hold the wrong opinion. Granted, he and Nye believed that they held the right opinion and he was using the statement as a club to bash deniers, but it will be fun to use when the “Super El Nino” doesn’t produce 1997/98 style record highs.

          1. But do you actually think they will recall their previous pronouncements?

            That whole bit with Nye was obnoxious, and that’s the DS whiff I was referring to.

            1. No, no. They believe they are right — which is fine, science is advanced, eventually by these disagreements. I just think climate science as it exists is closer to phrenology than theory of gravity. (Phrenology is no longer popular because the scientific method was applied to it, and found that variation in skull size and shape had little to do with observed moral and intellectual traits. However, lots of very important psychology and neuroscience has its roots in the early back-and-forth.)

          2. I just hope the Super El Ni?o produces torrents of rain to break the drought we in California have suffered through for several years, now. My town (and many others) have passed fairly severe water usage restrictions, enforced through some very stiff fines. They are also using the drought as an excuse to ram through plans for a local desalination plant. We had almost no “winter” as such (our rainy season) this year.

  5. Al Quada, such as it was when it planned and executed 911 is gone. All of its leaders have been killed or captured and nearly all of its foot soldiers long since died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. What remains is a loose conglomeration of various radical Islamists and assorted nuts who pick up the banner of Al Quada and fight for it. Saying the AUMF is still valid for those guys is like saying the declaration of war on Germany authorized the US to go after under ground Nazi groups in Western Europe in the 1950s,

    The AUMF needs to be repealed. If the President thinks some country is harboring terrorists such that we have a right to attack them, let him go to Congress and make the case for a new AUMF.

  6. More Madison:

    It is a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.


    If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.

    1. Oh, and don’t forget all of us “domestic terrorists” that want to reinstate the Constitution and other radical shit like that.

  7. Hi gene,

    Nice article. I agree with you.

    I remember Barbara lee’s vote and called her a national hero (and writing her to that affect ) while right-wingers were calling her a traitor and CATO libertarians were putting John Yoo on its board. It’s nice that you guys came around after a thousand or two body bags came home. Seriously, in defunding the DoD it’s going to take all the allies we can get.

    1. Defund the DoD? Which article said that?

      1. I’m a libertarian and a mostly minimalist minarchist, but I don’t advocate totally defunding our military.

        1. Defund it by 50-75% or so, rename it the Department of War, and I’ll be satisfied.

          1. More like defund it by 90%. We have a severely, severely bloated military. Before WWII the military would get slashed to the bone after every war.

            1. We do have nukes now, which changes the equation somewhat, so long as the nukes remain largely indefensible. No invasions.

              1. Guns in almost every home help to make us an uninviting target as well.

                many will poopah that statement but the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan lend support to it.

                Can you see a “no private gun ownership country” putting up much of a house to house resistance like Iraq ?

                1. Don’t send hate mail. I’m all for the right of libertarians to blow their heads off just so we understand, but I find your idea that people armed with guns are going to be able to deal with a modern army equipped with Predator drones, advanced jet fighters, and tanks ridiculous. And besides, who is going to invade us? The Canadians? A state hasn’t been invaded by a foreign power since the War of 1812.

                  1. All of those weapons you mentioned need people to operate them, they also need to be supplied.
                    And all of those people have families and friends.

                    And what makes you think they’ll be on your side?

            2. The Army’s budget would get slashed to the bone, but the Navy’s would get cut much less severely, since capital ships take so long to build. I think today you couldn’t cut as severely as they could in 1919 and still maintain a decent level of combat readiness, since we have so much expensive equipment today. Still. Severe cuts are what we need, no argument there.

              1. Why not one totally amazing killbot? Oh, wait, that’s how bad movies get started. Never mind, nukes are safer.

                1. I need your clothes, your boots, and your motorcycle.

              2. One of the problems with that is the lag time from conception to development of modern weapons systems.

                We would probably wind up suffering the shut down costs ( losses) of some hi-tech systems only to have to pay the start up costs of similar but slightly more advanced systems every decade or so.

          2. Department of Lamentations.

    2. “Come around”? We were here the entire time, shithead. Fuck you.

      1. I think it meant “reach around.”

      2. Warty|5.20.14 @ 1:31PM|#

        “Come around”? We were here the entire time, shithead. Fuck you.”

        You’re not going to throw down and offer to whup his ass like that Dangeroo guy ya’ll were talking about the other day are you ? lol

        I love it here. I wish I had found it sooner so I could be one of the gang.

      3. 2006, yes. 2003, ehhh, not so much . I went to more anti war rallies than I can count. I saw lots of Socialist Party of America and International Answer banners , but no CATO banners. I wonder why that is.

        1. You could always check out some back issues. Or read any libertarian author.

          1. I did. Read on if you can stomach this call for offensive war…


            “Third, when is it legitimate for the United States to attack another country? Libertarians certainly believe in self-defense. Most Americans certainly support going after Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for the 9/11 atrocities. But what about preemption? A person doesn’t have to wait until someone hits them or shoots them before they can defend themselves. Similarly free societies certainly have the right to defend themselves against imminent attack. But as Bill Clinton might say, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘imminent’ is.” And that’s where we are come to the murderous regime running Iraq today. Frankly it doesn’t look like Hussein has any intention of directly attacking the United States in the near future. However, a reasonable argument can be made that if he is left to ruin his country in peace, that much like Libya and Sudan, Hussein or his Baathist successors will end up supporting groups that will eventually strike at the United States. That is the main point?the existence of unfree regimes necessarily threaten the peace of free societies. And, what if he were to obtain nuclear weapons? Assume then that Hussein goes to war against his neighbors; what country would risk nuclear holocaust to rein him in?”

        2. And when Obama was elected the rallies stopped.

          1. There’s people not one mile away from me who protest the presence of u.s. Troops in Afghanistan. They are still there.

            I don’t agree with the war in Afghanistan. I was against it from the beginning. It’s important to note distinctions, which are among the following…

            1. Obama ended the Iraq War that his predecessor started
            2. Obama is winding down the war in Afghanistan
            3. Obama didn’t start the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
            4. The defense budget under Obama has decreased at one of the fastest rates since 1945.

    3. Fuck you.

      “came around”.

  8. Harry Reid said something I agree with? I guess he has gone insane.

    1. Unfortunately that picture of Harry was taken at a German military parade.

  9. James Maaaaaadisoonnnn??

    he’s just a dead old racist white guy from like, 100 years ago or something.

  10. This is the surest sign yet that Team Blue is going to lose the presidency.

    Maybe I’m just being cynical, and Reid is taking a principled stance on the separation of powers. Right?

  11. The US likes to declare a war on everything that the current government dislikes. The problem with declaring a war on everything innocuous (from imagined terrorists to a relatively harmless plant like cannabis) is that these insane wars are very costly, unnecessary and can never be won no matter how many resources are wasted on them. They do certainly take away many freedoms at taxpayer expense, create a police state and give government unfettered control over the population.

    1. Firstname|5.20.14 @ 3:21PM|#

      “The problem with declaring a war on everything innocuous (from imagined terrorists to a relatively harmless plant like cannabis) is that these insane wars are very costly, unnecessary and can never be won no matter how many resources are wasted on them. ”

      What difference, at this point, does that make ?

      The point of all these wars you decry isn’t to win them , or to solve the problems they purport to address.

      The purpose is to win elections.

      In the pursuit of elections and the budgets they control, no price in tax dollars is too high, no loss of liberty is too much. Oh ye of little faith.

      Ya just gotta believe !

  12. My thinking on this has changed somewhat.

    The Constitution authorized Congress to declare war. “War” has a pretty clearly defined meaning, legally speaking. It means armed conflict between sovereign nations.

    The AUMF is not a declaration of war. I see no provision of the Constitution that says Congress can authorize the use of military force outside a declaration of war.

    Congress could have declared war on Afghanistan and Iraq. I don’t know where it gets the Constitutional authority to authorize a free-floating use of the military against behavior it disapproves of (however dangerous or egregious) anywhere in the world.

    1. While I like your reasoning, Congress isn’t going to buy it. Congress thinks it can authorize anything up to and including voiding the Constitution. They are, as has been long observed, America’s only natural Criminal class.

      That said, I don’t see that obliterating Terrorist organizations should require a declaration of war. Or even much of an explanation. But I’m a Crank.

  13. Is the lack of Alt-Text a meta-joke along the lines of,

    “You know who else used these hand gestures?”

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  15. But delegating new authorities in advance might permanently change our constitutional default setting from peace to war.

    Madison also said that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” We’re now into our second decade running that experiment; how much longer do we want to risk proving him right?

    Too fucking late!

  16. This blanket authorization can be used to declare anyone who disagrees with the militant oligarchs and their militant tools from the “President” on down “the enemy”. It won’t be long before drones are used against Americans IN America. I think it also won’t be before we turn ourselves – or our “owners” who decide what we may know about what our military is doing and all that – into a the most hated country on Earth. They corporate super-rich could care less what happens to “ordinaries” like us as long as they get what they want. America has been pretty much openly invading, attacking, destroying and robbing others countries now. We’re a bandit nation, and the world will get tired enough of it finally to fight. once we treat a few larger countries as we did Haiti, that will be it, and America will be at war with the world.

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