President Donald Trump’s secretaries of state and defense pushed back against lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who questioned whether authorizations for military actions dating back to 2001 give the U.S. legal cover for counterterror operations in more than a dozen countries.
In testimony Monday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said existing authorizations for the use of military force — passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks to combat al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and in the run-up to the Iraq war — are sufficient to continue the U.S. fight against groups such as Islamic State that have emerged since then.
But Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, pushed back, saying that with U.S. forces in hostile environments in 19 nations, a new or revised AUMF is needed.
The fight over the authorization has heated up after the deaths of four U.S. soldiers in an ambush this month in Niger. Lawmakers have said they haven’t been kept informed of U.S. deployments and haven’t received enough information about what happened in the African nation. Some lawmakers have also raised questions about looser restraints on the use of armed drones and increased authority given to commanders in the field to carry out missions.
“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,” Cardin said.
While Tillerson and Mattis both defended the current war authorizations, they said any new measure from Congress shouldn’t impose deadlines or geographic restrictions.
“Legislation which would arbitrarily terminate the authorization to use force would be inconsistent with a conditions-based approach, and could unintentionally embolden our enemies with the goal of outlasting us,” Tillerson said.
Congress debated a new authorization for the use of military force in 2015, during President Barack Obama’s administration, but that effort died amid Democratic efforts to limit the scope of activities and to set hard deadlines for renewal. That has left the military operating with an AUMF dating back 16 years.
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the committee, suggested efforts to pass a revised authorization are inevitable, saying at the end of the hearing that “obviously the next logical step is for us to mark up an AUMF.”
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, noted that none of the 21 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee had been in their current jobs when the original authorizations were passed.
‘Skin in the Game’
“I would argue that the concern about giving our adversaries notice that we have to vote on something may be an issue, but its overwhelmed in a big way by not having Congress buy-in and not having us having skin in the game,” Flake said. “Congress needs to weigh in.”
Under questioning from Cardin about the Niger attack, Mattis said U.S. troops had been deployed there “in a train-and-advise role” and weren’t there under the authorizations for the use of force.
“The mission of those troops on that patrol was a combined patrol, which means they were with Niger troops,” Mattis said.
‘Morphed and Changed’
Both secretaries said the terrorist groups the U.S. is fighting have transformed as the years have passed, making them an unusual enemy to fight. Mattis said they “change their name as often as a rock and roll band.” Tillerson said the enemy “has morphed and changed over these 16 years, which I know is part of why this is such a vexing issue.”
Nearly every senator who spoke at the hearing on Monday argued in favor of an updated AUMF. Some criticized Mattis and Tillerson for saying that a new authorization must contain no new restrictions on geography or timing.
“That sounds like a permanent transition of power to the executive that really takes Congress out of the picture,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat. “We are quite distant in purpose and time from these groups that attacked us in 2001.”
Senators also used the hearing to raise concern that the administration may launch a military strike against North Korea, absent a North Korean attack or the imminent threat of one, without first seeking permission from Congress. Both secretaries declined to say whether the administration would seek such permission, adding that Trump could act under his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief.
“I’m always reluctant to get into the hypothetical,” Tillerson said. “I think this is an area where a number of facts would have to bear on the problem.”
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