Unlimited Worldwide War: ACLU Warns Senate Against Giving Trump Blank Check to Declare War

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The New York Times is reporting President Trump launched airstrikes against Syria on Friday despite opposition from his own defense secretary, James Mattis, who wanted Trump to first get congressional approval. Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers have described the strikes on Syria as illegal since Trump did not seek congressional input or authorization.This comes as Congress is considering rewriting the war powers granted to the president after the September 11 attacks—what’s known as the AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force. On September 14, 2001, the current AUMF passed the Senate 98-0 and 420-1 in the House, with California Democrat Barbara Lee casting the sole dissenting vote. Since then, it’s been used by Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump to justify at least 37 military operations in 14 countries—many of which were entirely unrelated to 9/11. On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Democratic committee member Tim Kaine of Virginia introduced legislation to replace the AUMFs with a new one. Corker and Kaine claim their legislation would strengthen congressional oversight. But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warn the proposed legislation would actually expand the authority of President Trump and all future presidents to engage in worldwide war without limitations. For more, we’re joined by Faiz Shakir, national political director for the ACLU.

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JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The New York Times is reporting President Trump launched airstrikes against Syria on Friday despite opposition from his own defense secretary, James Mattis, who wanted Trump to first get congressional approval. Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers have described the strikes on Syria as illegal since Trump did not seek congressional input or authorization.

This comes as Congress is considering rewriting the war powers granted to the president after the September 11th attacks—what’s known as the AUMF, or Authorization for Use of Military Force. On September 14th, 2001, three days after the World Trade Center attack, the current AUMF passed the Senate 98 to 0, and 420 to 1 in the House, with California Democrat Barbara Lee casting the sole dissenting vote. Since then, it’s been used by Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump to justify at least 37 military operations in 14 countries—many of which were entirely unrelated to 9/11. A second AUMF was passed in 2002 ahead of the Iraq invasion.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Democratic committee Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia introduced legislation to replace the AUMFs with a new one. Corker and Kaine claim their legislation would strengthen congressional oversight. But critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warn the proposed legislation would actually expand the authority of President Trump and all future presidents to engage in worldwide war without limit.

For more, we’re joined by Faiz Shakir. He is national policy director for the ACLU.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

FAIZ SHAKIR: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain your concern. Most people may be very surprised right now, saying, “No, Congress wanted to take the control back from the president.” You see this AUMF otherwise.

FAIZ SHAKIR: Absolutely. If you look at the language that Senators Kaine and Corker have proposed, they are offering unlimited war to the president of the United States. And under this president, we should all be concerned. The specific language of the authorization says that the president may just designate various groups to engage in war against, and those wars can proceed in any country around the world, without limit and with congressional authorization. So the president would not need to then go to Congress to seek authorization for any of his expansions of the war effort. Unlike the 9/11 AUMF, it constrains the president’s ability to, let’s say, send ground troops into Libya, under President Obama, who tried to expand the 9/11 AUMF to carry out that war. Under this authorization, the president could just send ground troops and expand the war in perpetuity without congressional authorization.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so—and there would be no time limit on this legislation, as well, right? So it could potentially be limitless for years to come? Doesn’t that, in effect, abdicate the responsibility of Congress to be the part of government that actually declares war?

FAIZ SHAKIR: That is exactly what is happening, that this legislation, in effect, is abdicating congressional responsibility. And to give Senators Kaine and Corker a little bit of credit here, they’re coming at it with good intention. They have recognized that the 9/11 AUMF has been abused. And it is an embarrassment to Congress that it has done nothing while the president and the executive branch expand worldwide operations under that now-17-year-old authorization. So they’re saying, “OK, well, Congress should wade into this and actually create a new AUMF.” In doing so, what they’re saying is “We’re just going to justify all the current ongoing operations and just give de facto authorization from Congress to go carry it out for as long as you’d like.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a tweet by Virginia Democratic Senator Tim Kaine, a co-sponsor of the legislation. He said, quote, “For too long, Congress has given Presidents a blank check to wage war. … It’s time for that to stop. We’ve introduced a new plan—Democrats and Republicans—to reassert Congress’ authority to authorize where, when, and with who we are at war.” After the U.S. strike on Syria last week, Kaine tweeted, “Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes against Syria without Congress’s approval is illegal. We need to stop giving presidents a blank check to wage war. Today it’s Syria, but what’s going to stop him from bombing Iran or North Korea next?” Why does Tim Kaine seem to think that the Corker AUMF will check the president’s authority to start a war?

FAIZ SHAKIR: So, the Syria authorization—the Syria war would have been authorized under the Kaine legislation. He is not doing anything to constrain the president’s power. He’s just putting into place that it is permanent law, and giving congressional stamp of approval for anything the president wants to do. There’s no check on him whatsoever. It’s just that Congress will now modify the 9/11 AUMF to include some of the groups—al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda, ISIS—and it will name them specifically but then grant the president whatever authorities and powers he wants to carry out war against those groups, wherever they may go.

I think Senator Kaine is trying to say that Congress should act and Congress should deliberate and Congress should have debate and argument over the president’s scope and power and authority—which is right. But what they should do is retract and repeal the AUMF of 9/11 and then have specific, targeted authorizations if and when they want to carry it out. I mean, in Syria, for instance, if you feel very comfortable with carrying out operations against a brutal regime who’s carried out illegal activities, then have the confidence of your convictions, make the argument to the American public and get specific authorization for that conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s what Mattis recommended.

FAIZ SHAKIR: Yes, of course. That is the way it should go. And the American public should have a role in this conversation. They should be told by the president of the United States, “Here’s the argument, here’s the intelligence that we have, and this is what we would like you to do.” It should be a full deliberation. But now, of course, under the 9/11 AUMF, we’ve just been allowing the president to carry these strikes and authorizations out without any kind of deliberation whatsoever.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this move to rewrite the AUMF, Corker actually started it last year, after the debacle that occurred in Niger and where Sergeant La David Johnson died, and most members of Congress didn’t even know that there were all of these American troops in Niger. How does it get to the point now where Congress doesn’t even know what the military is doing around the world?

FAIZ SHAKIR: They have decided that they’re not going to have any role in foreign affairs. And that is literally Tim Kaine’s argument, is that we should have a role. We should—and that they have a role, under Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The Congress is supposed to be the body that declares war. Reassume that responsibility and start having a deliberation.

I mean, unfortunately, we had an abuse of the AUMF under President Obama. He carried out a war in Libya, an air war, and they said, “You know, it’s just an air war, so we can just do it under the 9/11 AUMF.” Nonsense! It was the wrong choice then, and, unfortunately, that precedent is setting a dangerous precedent for the future under Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Congressmember Barbara Lee, the sole congressmember to vote against the AUMF after 9/11. She spoke on Democracy Now! a few years ago.

REP. BARBARA LEE: I voted against that resolution 15 years ago because it was so broad that I knew it was setting the stage and the foundation for perpetual war. And that is exactly what it has done. I actually asked the Library of Congress to conduct a study and to present to us the unclassified version of how many times and where it has been used. It’s been used over 37 times everywhere in the world. And it’s time that we repeal that blank check, Amy; otherwise, we’re going to continue in this state of endless war.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Barbara Lee, Faiz Shakir, talking about how this AUMF has been used scores of times, 37 times.

FAIZ SHAKIR: I think that there’s a number of options here for Congress. I mean, first, I think they would—I would ask them to repeal the 9/11 AUMF. Start with that. Then, if the president is thinking about carrying out war in Syria, North Korea, there’s plenty of time to deliberate over those. The 9/11 authorization was intended to be responsive to an immediate attack, something that needed to be done with urgency. We are not in that time—we are not in that context right now. And so I think there’s opportunities for Congress to reassert its authority to authorize war. And hopefully, I think, the American public understands that the Tim Kaine and Bob Corker approach is the wrong way to go. And we’d ask people to go to ACLU and join us and raise your voices on this and, hopefully, build a movement that is concerned about war expanding around the world without authorization and in perpetuity.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Faiz, I wanted to get your comment on these words by the secretary of state nominee, Mike Pompeo. At his confirmation hearing last week, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker asked him if he thinks President Trump has the power to launch airstrikes against Syria without congressional approval, and this is what Pompeo said.

MIKE POMPEO: I believe that he has the authority he needs to do that today. I don’t believe we need a new AUMF for the president to engage in the activity that you described.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This is our nominee for secretary of state.

FAIZ SHAKIR: Yeah. So, I think the nominee—I mean, I think there’s a real danger that Pompeo is simply going to go along for the ride, whenever Donald Trump asks him to do anything. And that’s why I think, at this particular moment in time, Congress has the most important role to force deliberation here. And they are just not interested and not engaged. And I think it’s up to we, the people, the American public, to raise their voices and say, “Hey, this is nonsense. We cannot allow this to continue.”

AMY GOODMAN: Faiz Shakir, we want to thank you for being with us. Of course, we will continue to follow this. It’s expected to be taken up next week in the Senate. Faiz Shakir is national [political] director for the ACLU.

This is Democracy Now! Number-one arms salesman, the president of the United States, Donald Trump? We’ll bring you a very interesting exposé from Reuters. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Strange Things Happen Every Day” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

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