A Blank Slate, Not a Blank Check

May 22nd, 2014

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Sixty words have defined the last 13 years. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, Congress voted overwhelmingly to give the president broad authority to use force against those who had attacked us. But those 60 words, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, have been in effect for far longer, in more places, and invoked against more groups than anyone could have suspected in 2001. After bin Laden’s death and with the war in Afghanistan drawing to a close, now it is time to revisit the AUMF.

The law itself gives the president the authority to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” In the past, this has been interpreted as a grant to go after al-Qaida, the Taliban and “associated forces” wherever they may be found, although military operations now seem to be focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and sometimes Somalia.

The last administration also invoked the authorization as the basis for some electronic surveillance, rendition and interrogation programs. It still provides the basis for detention at Guantanamo. It has been invoked to justify military action against groups far from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, from the Philippine Archipelago to Yemen and Somalia. And it is not clear what triggering event would shut down the authorization – neither the death of Osama bin Laden nor the decimation of core al-Qaida seem to have given us our victory parade moment.

The Constitution vests in Congress the right to declare war, yet under the AUMF, the decision of who we’re at war with is entirely in the administration’s hands. Further, moderates in the Senate such as Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have expressed support for revisiting the law. Senators who voted for the initial resolution, from John McCain, R-Ariz., on the right to Richard Durbin, D-Ill., on the left, agree that the authority has grown beyond what they initially envisioned. Even President Obama acknowledges that it’s time to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the law.

But Congress is playing 20 questions with the president when it comes to tailoring new authorities. The administration has kept which groups fall under the AUMF a secret even from the members of Congress who have oversight over our military. Republicans ask whether the authorization is sufficient to go after the perpetrators of the attacks on Benghazi. Would the law apply against Boko Haram, the al-Qaida-linked group that recently kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian girls? Who we are or are not at war with is a subject of secret debate even inside the administration.

Despite President Obama’s direction that it’s time to modify the AUMF, his administration is unlikely to answer Congress on what narrower authorities they could live with until they face the real and serious prospect of losing those authorities. Many members of Congress agree, which is why an amendment offered by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., to sunset the current AUMF won the support of 184 of his colleagues.

Amendments like Schiff’s, which would end the AUMF on a defined date months in the future, would give the administration and Congress time to work out what the details of a new authorization would be. Many worry about removing this authority given Congress’ recent inability to pass anything substantive. But when it matters to national security, Congress has acted very quickly to grant new authorities. Starting with World War I, Congress has passed new authorizations or declarations of war within a week of the president’s request.

And facing the loss of current broad authorities would give the administration an incentive to look seriously at what is necessary. But there’s extensive consensus around national security. The contours of a bipartisan agreement on a new AUMF could emerge long before the Schiff amendment would go into effect.

The time has come to reform the Authorization for the Use of Military Force. This country has come too far, and we have sacrificed and learned too much in the past 13 years, to be relying on an old and increasingly outdated authority to fight al-Qaida. Starting over with a blank slate is better than going forward with a blank check.

This piece was originally published in U.S. News and World Report