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Policy on drone strike authorization doesn’t need to change, Defense official says

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A senior Defense Department official said Thursday that the Pentagon sees no need to change the broad congressional authorization under which the military conducts lethal drone strikes against terrorist targets and estimated that the war with al-Qaeda could continue for up to two decades.

“At this point we’re comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured,” Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in 2001. “Right now . . . it serves its purpose,” he said.

“In my judgment,” Sheehan said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

President Obama has pledged to be more transparent about the secret targeted killing program that has included nearly 400 CIA and military drone strikes during his administration. In a series of speeches over the past year, senior administration officials have laid out their legal justification for the program, including the AUMF.

Congress has begun to grapple with its oversight role and authority to approve declarations of war like the one in which the administration says it is engaged. Lawmakers have questioned whether the AUMF, enacted days after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaeda attacks, should be scrapped or rewritten to apply to what has become a starkly different anti-terrorist campaign nearly 12 years later.

The law authorized the president to use whatever military force he deemed necessary against those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 2001 attacks 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.”

Originally interpreted to apply to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in recent years, the AUMF has been expanded to authorize drone strikes against what the administration calls al-Qaeda “associates” as far afield as Yemen and Somalia. Sheehan and the Defense Department’s acting counsel, Robert S. Taylor, said there are no geographic boundaries on future use against groups deemed affiliates of the main al-Qaeda organization.

The hearing concerned only targeted killing conducted by the military. The vast majority of drone strikes have been carried out by the CIA in Pakistan, where al-Qaeda leaders sought refuge after the U.S.-led coalition targeted them in Afghanistan.

Sheehan said that while the president must approve each military strike, the Pentagon defines which groups are designated as “associates” that pose a threat to U.S. security.

“If a terrorist group is AQ-affiliated, does that inherently mean that they are threatening the United States?” asked Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.).

“Yes, sir, although it’s a bit murky, I hate to say, because there are groups that have openly professed their affiliations with al-Qaeda, yet, in fact, as a government we haven’t completely grappled with that as of now,” Sheehan said.

Several lawmakers expressed outrage at what they saw as the lack of specificity. “Here we are, 12 years later, and you . . . come before us and tell us that you don’t think it needs to be updated. Well, clearly it does,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who described the testimony as “disturbing.”

Others disagreed. “I tend to agree that what we have today is working,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

The committee appeared divided on whether a new version should be written to curtail the law or whether its current expansive interpretation should be authorized. Because the administration has described al-Qaeda’s leadership core in Pakistan as gravely wounded by the strikes and Afghanistan is seeking peace negotiations with the Taliban, several questioned how any of the group’s “associates” could still be targeted under the law.

“In other words, could we be in a situation in which Afghanistan is no longer at war against Mullah Omar’s Taliban, but we still are?” asked Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

“It could be the case, yes, senator,” Sheehan said.

“Does the AUMF expire by presidential declaration, congressional action or the occurrence of an actual event in the world?” asked Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.).

“We have not determined that the conflict has come to an end,” Taylor said. “Precisely how that would be written and established is unclear.”

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