June 20, 2019

IntelBrief: Congress Debates Whether the AUMF Has Outlived Its Mandate

The U.S. Capitol Building, Washington, D.C..
  • For the first time since 2001, there might be meaningful Congressional oversight over the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).
  • From a legal standpoint, the U.S. has relied on the 2001 AUMF for nearly all of its military engagements in the post-9/11 era.
  • As tensions escalate between Washington and Tehran, members of Congress are growing concerned that the AUMF will be used to justify attacking Iran.
  • The AUMF has allowed the U.S. to vastly expand its counterterrorism footprint, yet the global jihadist movement is more widespread than it was before 9/11.


Amid the Trump administration's escalating campaign of 'maximum pressure' against Iran, attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman have raised the specter of military conflict between the two countries. These recent developments have only strengthened the impetus to curtail the White House’s 'blank check’ concerning initiating military conflict without congressional approval or a more comprehensive political debate. The immediate congressional legislative concern (at least in the majority) is deterring the administration from attacking Iran, but the broader issue concerns most of the U.S. military’s combat operations. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, three U.S. administrations (Bush, Obama, and now Trump) have relied on a concise bill passed on September 14, 2001, and then signed into law by then-President Bush on September 18: S.J. Res. 23, formally titled in Section 1 as the 'Authorization for Use of Military Force' or AUMF.

The 2001 AUMF was authored and implemented in direct response to the 9/11 attacks: the stated purpose of the bill was 'to authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against those responsible for the recent attacks launched against the United States 'noting that the President' is authorized 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.' From a legal standpoint, the U.S. has relied on the 2001 AUMF for nearly all of its military engagements in the post-9/11 era, except the Iraq invasion of 2003, which was authorized by a second, separate AUMF in 2002. With every use, the AUMF is diluted even more from its original stated purpose and its limitations. Debates over the legality and utility of the AUMF should not be a partisan issue, but should be debated within the confines of American democracy and adherence to the Constitution. 

As the U.S. edges closer to possible military action against Iran, a country being squeezed by aggressive sanctions, more members of Congress are growing concerned that the AUMF will be used to justify attacks against Iran. During a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to rule out the administration using the AUMF to engage Iran militarily. He said 'no doubt there's a connection' between the Iranian government and al-Qaeda, a deliberately misleading claim. In the years just after 2001, Iran had placed some al-Qaeda figures under house arrest, refusing to turn them over to the U.S. But there is no operational coordination between Iran and al-Qaeda, even as both consider the U.S. as an adversary. 

There have been previous efforts by Congress to end the AUMF, but to date, these efforts have never passed a full vote in the House of Representatives, although this trend could soon change. Representative Barbara Lee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced a measure, H.R. 1274 in February 2019, to end the AUMF. This measure is attached to bill H.R. 2740, the omnibus spending bill that funds, among other things, the Department of Defense. A recent amendment by Representative McCaul to strip the removal of the AUMF from the final bill failed, and now there is a possibility it will be included in the final bill to be voted on by the full House. Some in Congress argue that ending the AUMF would negatively impact the 'military’s existing legal authority for fighting terrorists around the globe' and thus limit essential counterterrorism missions worldwide. But Washington now maintains a global counterterrorism footprint. The U.S. has troops in combat in over a dozen nations, has 40 military bases worldwide connected to counterterrorism efforts, and is involved in counterterrorism training with approximately 65 different partner nations. And still, the global jihadist movement is more widespread than ever, even compared with pre-9/11 levels.  


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