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Several years ago, in a prescient op-ed in the Washington Post, our colleague John Bellinger argued that the September 2001 AUMF was an increasingly poor fit for the evolving threats facing the United States. It is a theme to which many of us have returned in the intervening years, as unfolding trends and events have exacerbated this concern. Against that backdrop, we are pleased to announce the publication (through the Hoover Institution) of our jointly-authored essay titled "A Statutory Framework for Next-Generation Threats." Our aim here is to provide a pithy overview of the problem and a roadmap of the options Congress might consider in response to it (as well as the pros and cons of these options). It is a short read, at less than 20 pages. We very much welcome substantive responses, as a principle of aim of the project is to spark serious dialogue. Here is the introduction:
Since September 18, 2001, a joint resolution of Congress known as the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) has served as the primary legal foundation for the “war on terror.” In this essay we explain why the AUMF is increasingly obsolete, why the nation will probably need a new legal foundation for next-generation terrorist threats, what the options are for this new legal foundation, and which option we think is best.
The AUMF authorizes the president 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, . . . .” The authorization of “force” in the AUMF is the main legal basis for the president’s power to detain and target members of al Qaeda and The Taliban. In addition, since September 11, Congress, two presidential administrations, and the lower federal courts have interpreted the “force” authorized by the AUMF to extend to members or substantial supporters of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and associated forces.
The main reason the AUMF is becoming obsolete is that the conflict it describes – which on its face is one against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and those who harbor them – is growing less salient as U.S. and allied actions degrade the core of Al Qaeda and the U.S. military draws down its forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the same time that the original objects of the AUMF are dying off, newer terrorist groups that threaten the United States and its interests are emerging around the globe. Some of the terrorist groups have substantial ties to al Qaeda and thus can be brought within the AUMF by interpretation.
For example, the President has been able to use force against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (“AQAP”), a terrorist organization in Yemen, because it is a supporter or associated force of al Qaeda. But this interpretive move is increasingly difficult as newer threatening groups emerge with dimmer ties, if any, to al Qaeda. As a result, we are reaching the end point of statutory authority for the President to meet terrorist threats.
We should emphasize at the outset that we do not claim that the increasingly obsolete AUMF demands immediate amendment or alteration. We do not make this claim because we lack access to classified information that would indicate the full nature of the terrorist threats the nation faces, or their connection to al Qaeda, or the nation’s ability to meet the threat given current legal authorities.
We also recognize that any new force authorizations carry significant strategic and political consequences beyond their immediate operational consequences. We nonetheless believe strongly – based on public materials and conversations with government officials – that the AUMF’s usefulness is running out, and that this trend will continue and will demand attention, in the medium term if not in the short term. Our aim is to contribute to the conversation the nation will one day have about a renewed AUMF by explaining why we think one will be necessary and the possible shape it might take.
Part I of this paper explains in more detail why the AUMF is becoming obsolete and argues that the nation needs a new legal foundation for next-generation terrorist threats. Part II then describes the basic options for this new legal foundation, ranging from the President’s Article II powers alone to a variety of statutory approaches, and discusses the pros and cons of each option, and the one we prefer. Part III analyzes additional factors Congress should consider in any such framework.