But U.S. officials said administration lawyers are increasingly concerned that the law is being stretched to its legal breaking point, just as new threats are emerging in countries including Syria, Libya and Mali.
“The farther we get away from 9/11 and what this legislation was initially focused upon,” a senior Obama administration official said, “we can see from both a theoretical but also a practical standpoint that groups that have arisen or morphed become more difficult to fit in.”
The waning relevance of the 2001 law, the official said, is “requiring a whole policy and legal look.” The official, like most others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.
The authorization law has already been expanded by federal courts beyond its original scope to apply to “associated forces” of al-Qaeda. But officials said legal advisers at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies are now weighing whether the law can be stretched to cover what one former official called “associates of associates.”
The debate has been driven by the emergence of groups in North Africa and the Middle East that may embrace aspects of al-Qaeda’s agenda but have no meaningful ties to its crumbling leadership base in Pakistan. Among them are the al-Nusra Front in Syria and Ansar al-Sharia, which was linked to the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya. They could be exposed to drone strikes and kill-or-capture missions involving U.S. troops.
Officials said they have not ruled out seeking an updated authorization from Congress or relying on the president’s constitutional powers to protect the country. But they said those are unappealing alternatives.
AUMF and the war on terror
The debate comes as the administration seeks to turn counterterrorism policies adopted as emergency measures after the 2001 attacks into more permanent procedures that can sustain the campaign against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as other current and future threats.
The AUMF, as the 2001 measure is known, has been so central to U.S. efforts that counterterrorism officials said deliberations over whom to put on the list for drone strikes routinely start with the question of whether a proposed target is “AUMF-able.”
The outcome of the debate could determine when and how the war on terrorism — at least as defined by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks — comes to a close.