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Secretaries of Defense and State Testify On Law Used To Wage War


To another story now to do with Congress and war. Three days after the 9/11 attacks, Congress gave President George W. Bush the authority to wage war in Afghanistan. Sixteen years later, that law - the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF - is still the basis for many U.S. military operations around the globe. So does it need an update? Well, here to talk about that is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want people to know we are not the only ones raising this question. Senators held a hearing on this very subject today on the Hill. Tell us who was there. What happened?

MYRE: Senate Foreign Relations Committee - a high-powered hearing - they had both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson - so a lot of firepower there. Now, some senators are concerned about this. They see this sort of sense of a forever war. The U.S. has been at war nonstop 16 years, never happened before. The Congressional Research Service looked into this last year and found that Presidents Bush and Obama cited this law 37 times during their administrations for military actions in 14 separate countries. Mattis and Tillerson said that seems to be OK. And here, Tillerson seems to think they're good. Let's listen to what he had to say.


REX TILLERSON: The United States has the legal authority to prosecute campaigns against the Taliban, al-Qaida and associated forces, including ISIS, and is not currently seeking any new or additional congressional authorization for the use of force.

KELLY: So if Tillerson, as we heard there, and Mattis say they don't need a new authorization - they've got what they need - is it clear how much lawmakers are going to fight for this?

MYRE: Well, it doesn't seem like they're fighting real hard, or it's definitely split. Now, there are some who want it, like Senator Bob Corker, who's the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and a few other Republicans as well. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said he thinks presidents have been way too liberal in the use of this. He has been around for quite some time and seen this play out. And here's what he had to say about it.


BEN CARDIN: As one who voted for that AUMF when I was in Congress in 2001, I never intended and I think all of us never intended it would still be used today to justify the use of military force against ISIS.

MYRE: But there are many in Congress who seem happy to let it lie. They don't really want to take on this responsibility. They fear it could come back and haunt them. And perhaps the leading example would be Hillary Clinton. She voted for the use of force against Iraq in 2002 and then spent a lot of time defending that or saying that it was a mistake but having to relitigate it over and over.

KELLY: What about the current president? What does President Trump say about all this?

MYRE: Well, he's been very clear. He says he does not want to micromanage the military. He wants the generals to have free rein. He feels that they have too many restrictions on them. He certainly doesn't want to be constrained, most - least of all by his sharpest critics in Congress. And I think the recent events in Niger have shown that there are these missions below the radar, and it raises the question of striking the balance between the president having freedom to act and Congress having some role in keeping the checks and balances.

KELLY: All right, that's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks.

MYRE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.