Congress wrestles with new war on terror authorization

Apr 16, 2018
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Some members of Congress have called on Trump to seek congressional approval for further military action in Syria, but this authorization would not address that conflict or others that fall outside of expressly fighting terrorist organizations.

Supporters argue that the measure limits the president’s war powers in a way the current, open-ended war authorization does not. Unlike the current authorization, it specifically names terror groups the United States can engage and it allows for the U.S. to fight the main terrorism splinter groups, known as “associated forces.” The groups identified in the legislation are ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according a congressional aide who has seen the latest version of the bill. How broadly those “associated forces” are defined remains a sticking point before a final deal is reached, two sources and one senator told NBC News.

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Also in the measure: A congressional review every four years at which point Congress could amend, expand or repeal the president’s authority, according to congressional sources who provided details to NBC News. If Congress doesn’t act, the president’s authority continues unabated. While some wanted an expiration of the war authorization, negotiators settled on the review to ensure Congress has some oversight while trying to appease those reluctant to challenge the president’s authority.

“I think it strikes a pretty clear balance. I would have liked a sunset but this still gives us an opportunity to weigh in,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has worked on this measure and previous versions with Sen. Kaine, said. “So I think it strikes the best template that we could come up with.”

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By not outlining regions where sustained combat fighting is allowed, the measure enables the administration to wage war against non-state actors anywhere in the world. But the president would be required to submit a report to Congress within 48 hours when he or she launches a new offensive. Congress can then disapprove, sources said.

Critics say that while the current AUMF has been abused and must be updated, they worry this version still provides too much power to the executive branch.

“I worry about an AUMF that is more permissive than what the president currently interprets his authority to be,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said. “It’s gonna be hard for me to support something that has no sunset and no geographic limitation.”

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Matthew Waxman, professor at Columbia Law School and former national security official in the George W. Bush administration said the lack of an expiration date will be disappointing to those who worry that this “entrenches an indefinite war.”

“The political reality, though, is that a much more restrictive AUMF won’t be possible anytime soon, and we’ll be engaged in an indefinite war either way,” Wasman said. “A new AUMF that includes strict congressional reporting and requires more frequent congressional reconsideration at least improves transparency and oversight.”

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