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What the AUMF Is and Why You Should Care

By Jessica Michek

Thursday, November 6, 2014

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What is the AUMF?

On September 18, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized the president to “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.”

Rather than authorizing a broad and unlimited “war on terror,” the AUMF’s mandate is specifically tied to those responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks: the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

The threat landscape facing the United States has changed drastically since 2001. With the al-Qaeda core crippled by over a decade of concentrated effort by the United States and its allies, the terrorist threat has become more diffuse. While some terrorist groups have clear organizational and operational links to al-Qaeda, others are more opaque.

Why Does the AUMF Matter?

As the United States and its allies conduct airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (IS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, or ISIL), the question of how far the AUMF reaches is especially relevant. The White House argues that the AUMF obtained in 2001 applies to the fight against IS and that approval from Congress to conduct operations against the IS threat is unnecessary. Others disagree, arguing that IS is a separate entity from al-Qaeda, and any action taken against them would not be covered under the current AUMF.

In a written statement to The New York Times, the White House’s legal team defended the campaign against IS, writing: “The President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the military airstrike operations he is directing against ISIL.”

The White House further explained that it interprets the 2001 AUMF to cover the use of force against IS, “based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, and extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position – supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups – that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy, the President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against ISIL, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’s senior leadership and ISIL.”

Critics of the president’s use of the AUMF argue that the last sentence is most telling. Though IS came into being as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), it was disavowed by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in February 2014, after IS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself the leader of a new Islamic caliphate. Furthermore, IS did not come into being until 2004 – three years after the AUMF’s passage.

The Future of the AUMF

At the National Defense University in May 2013, President Obama declared, “I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.”

However, such engagement has not yet occurred. Instead of seeking congressional approval for a new AUMF that clearly encompasses IS, the Administration is proceeding under the auspices of the 2001 AUMF. “Continuing to indefinitely rely on the September 2001 AUMF without further congressional action,” warned the 9/11 Commission in July, “threatens to erode the constitutionally mandated separation of powers.”

Though members of Congress have been concerned about the wide-ranging actions undertaken under the AUMF, it has remained in force since 2001 and has never been amended, despite the introduction of several proposals.

In 2013, a group of legal scholars put together a proposal for amending the AUMF. Under this proposal: “Congress sets forth general statutory criteria for presidential uses of force against new terrorist threats but requires the executive branch, through a robust administrative process, to identify particular groups that are covered by that authorization of force.”

In September, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) proposed a new AUMF specifically against IS. The proposal would authorize force against IS in Iraq and Syria and repeal the 2001 AUMF eighteen months after its passage. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) put forward a slightly different proposal that would authorize action against IS, restrict the use of U.S. ground troops and sunset after one year but leave the 2001 AUMF untouched.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) suggested that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a priority for the lame-duck Congress, could be a “logical place” for an AUMF against IS.

The White House is preparing to meet with congressional leaders on Friday and a discussion of a new authorization against IS is reportedly on the agenda. “[T]he idea is to right-size and update whatever authorization Congress provides to suit the current fight, rather than previous fights,” President Obama said on Wednesday. “[I]t will be a process of listening to members of Congress, as well as us presenting what we think needs to be the set of authorities that we have. And I’m confident we’re going to be able to get that done.”

As U.S.-led efforts against IS continue, this could be a much-needed opportunity to clarify this issue.