President Obama on Thursday promised to ramp down or cancel outright a number of 9/11-era U.S. counterterrorism policies that would usher in a new chapter in America's war on terror.
Calls to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and to codify rules on drone strikes made headlines, but Obama’s promised effort to change the rules of engagement in the war on terror may have the biggest ramifications for national security.
Passed by Congress in the days immediately after 9/11, those rules — known as Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF) — gave the Pentagon and intelligence agencies unprecedented authority to wage war against al Qaeda and other militant groups.
The authorization opened the door to a much wider range of aggressive and controversial counterterrorism tactics for the military, unbinding it from traditional rules of war.
But Obama argued in his address Thursday at the National Defense University that the law has expanded beyond its intent and should be repealed.
"I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate," Obama said.
Obama argued that unless the 12-year-old rules are rewritten, Congress risked giving future presidents unbound powers.
“Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,” Obama said in arguing for the AUMF’s change.
“So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate,” he said. “And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
It seems unlikely Congress will approve legislation to change the rules of engagement, however, and it is unclear how hard Obama — already focused on immigration reform and distracted by a trio of controversies — will push on the issue.
Some Republicans argued Obama was weakening the U.S. war on terror with his proposals.
“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with al Qaeda. To somehow argue that al Qaeda is ‘on the run,’ comes from a degree of un-reality to me that is really incredible,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Violent al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, West Africa, Libya and elsewhere that continue to plot attacks against the United States are proof positive the rules of engagement must remain intact, he said.
"To somehow think we can bring the [AUMF] to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground," McCain said. "Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time."
A former CIA officer argued the White House simply does not have the political capital to burn in order to get the counterterrorism rules changed.
"Congress is not going to allow [Obama] to move" on the rules changes or any of the other initiatives laid out by the president during Thursday's speech, Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA official, told The Hill on Thursday.
"I do not think the president is going to spend a lot of political capital on this," said Fleitz, who described Thursday's speech as being geared more toward preserving Obama's foreign policy legacy than actual changes in counterterrorism strategy.
Obama's effort to change nearly a decade of battle-tested counterterrorism tactics could have a chilling effect on the military and intelligence community, Fleitz said.
The high bar being set by the White House on counterterrorism, particularly on the use of armed drones, may make military and intelligence operators gun shy in launching counterterrorism missions, he said.
"The intelligence [community] will be reluctant to use them," should Obama follow through on his efforts to rein in armed drone strikes, Fleitz said.
For his part, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper supported Obama's pledge to rewrite the way the U.S. fights terrorism around the world.
"I welcome the effort to strengthen the process for reviewing and approving counter-terrorism operations," Clapper said in a statement shortly after Thursday's speech.
"I look forward to continuing to work with our congressional oversight bodies ... as we enter a new phase in our struggle against violent extremism," Clapper added.