02:51 - Source: CNN
On the ground in Niger investigating ambush
(CNN) —  

Trump administration officials told Congress that there’s no need to update the authorization that originally targeted terrorists responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks and has now been stretched to cover anti-terror operations in over a dozen countries.

Instead, they argued that an attempt to update it could hurt US military efforts and undermine the confidence of allies.

A new Authorization for the Use of Military Force “is not legally required to address the continuing threat posed by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

But many lawmakers and human rights groups feel that the AUMF has been stretched far beyond its original purpose, 16 years after it was first drafted, to justify military activity in places like Niger, where four US troops were recently killed. Congress, they argue, should have a chance to review where and how the President is using military force.

In 2001, Congress granted the president the AUMF in order to target those responsible for the attacks of September 11. An additional 2002 AUMF gave the president authority for the war in Iraq.

Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that he hoped they would “help us examine what the appropriate oversight role for Congress is and how we can work together to ensure that our nation’s political leadership is meeting the responsibility to decide when and where our country uses military force.”

Corker pointed out that in his last War Powers Resolution letter to Congress, the President identified 19 countries where US military personnel are deployed and equipped for combat: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Niger, Cameroon, Uganda, South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Cuba, and Kosovo.

“As this month’s deadly attack in Niger proved, those forces can find themselves in combat at any moment,” Corker said.

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, who has long pushed for a renewed AUMF, pointed out that none of the senators on the committee were even in the Senate when the AUMF was approved. He said it was crucial that Congress be involved in crafting a new authority.

“We haven’t weighed in, we haven’t said our piece, we haven’t voted on this,” Flake said. “Congress needs to weigh in. We have to make sure our adversaries and our allies and most importantly our troops know we speak with one voice. We ought to aspire to be more than a feedback loop.”

Mattis and Tillerson argued that repealing the AUMF would cause operational paralysis, confuse military operations and lead allies to question the US commitment to fighting ISIS.

“It lies firmly within any president’s constitutional authority and responsibility as the elected commander-in-chief to designate who presents a threat to our country,” Mattis said.

And Mattis pointed out that previous administrations have cited the AUMF to address the terrorist threat posed by groups in Iraq and Syria.

“The uncertainty accompanying that situation could only signal to our enemies and our friends that we are backing away from this fight,” Mattis said, adding that a repeal would “create significant opportunities for our enemies to seize the initiative.”

If a new AUMF has to be drawn up, both officials said it is crucial that it is put in place prior to or simultaneously with the repeal of the old ones, and that it not be restricted by time or geography.

Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, pushed back against the argument that a debate and renewal poses risks. It would be in the national interest “to have a renewed clearer strengthened authorization” and that it’s “worth the risk” of emboldening enemies and worrying allies “if we do it in a way that’s roughhewn,” Coons said.

The deaths in Niger have sharpened lawmakers’ concerns about the extent of US military activities overseas and the rules that govern them. Groups such as Amnesty International have raised questions about the way the AUMF has been stretched to fit myriad situations. They also question a recent decision by President Donald Trump to loosen restrictions on the use of commando raids and drones outside war zones and the authorities used to justify them.

“Congress should have serious concerns about allowing the President more leeway,” said Amnesty’s Security with Human Rights director, Daphne Eviatar. “The US has barely grappled with the human rights abuses already committed under the 2001 AUMF – it cannot continue to pursue a global forever war.”

Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the committee, said he voted for the 2001 authorization, but added that, “I never intended, all of us never intended, it would still be used today to justify the use of military force against ISIS.”

“There may be some disagreements about what the AUMF covers,” Cardin said, but he went on to tell Tillerson and Mattis that there’s “no debate about our resolve to go after terrorists… we want you to have the ability to root them out and destroy them.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle point out that the AUMF is now used to fight groups that didn’t even exist in 2001, when it was first written.

“I personally think 2001 doesn’t apply to this situation,” Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said referring to the fight against ISIS.

Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican, told Mattis that the relationship between al Qaeda and groups such as ISIS is “highly attenuated.” Mattis pushed back, saying that their names may change, but that terror groups bear a “remarkable resemblance” in terms of ideology and often leadership.

These terror groups “change their names as often as a rock ’n’ roll band,” Mattis said.

Tillerson said the 2001 AUMF provides the legal basis for holding members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and other groups at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay. It also authorizes the use of “necessary and appropriate force” to defend the US and partner forces in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Tillerson said.

“This administration relies on the 2001 AUMF as the domestic legal authority for our own military actions against” al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Tillerson told the committee.

Tillerson added that repealing the 2001 and 2002 authorities without “an immediate and appropriate replacement would call into question the domestic legal basis for the United States’ full range of military activities against the Taliban, al Qaeda and associated forces, including ISIS, as well as our detention operations at Guantanamo Bay.”