Niger deaths ramp up pressure for new military authorization

Niger deaths ramp up pressure for new military authorization
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The ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers has ramped up the pressure on Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: First Gitmo transfer under Trump could happen 'soon' | White House says Trump has confidence in VA chief | Russia concedes 'dozens' of civilians injured in Syria clash Pentagon: First Gitmo transfer under Trump could happen 'soon' Russia concedes 'dozens' of citizens injured in clash with US forces in Syria MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonFormer WH adviser: Trump will want to rejoin Paris climate pact by 2020 Why the US should lead on protecting Rohingya Muslims 'Bolivarian Diaspora' can no longer be ignored MORE, who are preparing to testify Monday before the Senate on war authorizations.

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee are expected to pepper the pair with questions about the expansion of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) into Africa, with some insisting the new battlefield should require an update to the 16-year-old authorization for the use of military force (AUMF). 

“I am very disturbed at the authorities question … just the extent of the operations,” Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSave lives, restore congressional respect by strengthening opioids’ seizure Overnight Finance: Lawmakers, Treasury look to close tax law loopholes | Trump says he backs gas tax hike | Markets rise despite higher inflation | Fannie Mae asks for .7B Bipartisan Senate group says they have immigration deal MORE (D-Va.) said this week after a classified briefing on Niger. “I don’t think Congress has necessarily been kept completely kept up to date, and the American public I think certainly has not.”

Still, the hurdles that have kept Congress from passing a new AUMF in the past, including deep divisions over sunset dates, ground troops and geographic constraints, remain. That leaves the chances of success for this latest push unclear.

Monday’s hearing on the AUMF will be Mattis and Tillerson’s first public one specifically on the issue, though the pair briefed the committee on it behind closed doors and have been asked about it at broader public hearings.

The Trump administration relies on the 2001 AUMF for legal authority in the war against ISIS, as did the Obama administration before it. 

The AUMF authorized military actions against al Qaeda, the Taliban and other perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Proponents of using it against ISIS argue that the terrorist group grew out of al Qaeda, while opponents highlight the two groups’ public falling-out as well as the fact that ISIS did not exist in 2001.

The administration told Congress in a letter earlier this year that it believes the 2001 AUMF provides sufficient legal cover for the ISIS war, and so it is not seeking a new one. 

But after Mattis and Tillerson briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the issue behind closed doors in August, senators said they were under the impression that the administration would not actively oppose Congress passing a new AUMF. 

Indeed, Mattis has said publicly he thinks a new AUMF is important to signal support for the mission.

“As far as the AUMF goes, my point is that we need the unity of the American government, and with the Congress involved that brings the unity of the American people to this fight,” Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.

The AUMF debate has reignited a few times before in the Trump administration, to no avail, most notably after President Trump ordered a U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase and when Trump has appeared to threaten military action against North Korea.

The latest impetus for the debate is the Oct. 4 ambush by ISIS-affiliated militants in Niger that killed Sgt. La David Johnson, Staff Sgt. Bryan Black, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson and Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright.

Some lawmakers have said they were unaware of the extent of the U.S. mission in Niger prior to the attack, which they have argued shows the need for Congress to reassume its role in declaring war. 

Kaine, who for years has been one of Congress’s most vocal proponents of a new AUMF, emerged Thursday from the briefing on Niger saying he has more urgency in his quest than before, as well as more to ask at Monday’s open hearing with Mattis and Tillerson.

“Some things that came out of there that I can ask at an open hearing on Monday, I’m going to because I think the extent of the operations, the number of countries, would be surprising to people,” Kaine said, declining to say what specifically he plans to ask.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Drama surrounding Shulkin — what is the future of VA health care? Blackburn pushes back on potential Corker bid: 'I'm going to win' MORE (R-Tenn.), a Trump critic who has warned that the president’s rhetoric could set off "World War III," said there are a number of issues to address in the AUMF debate. 

“I think that what’s happened in Niger and what’s happening around the world and then some of the things that are happening in the North Korea issue and the conflict there, the conflict that could occur there — I think it’s going to end up being much more expansive than originally thought, so we’re probably going to take our time, not just walking through the AUMF for ISIS, but also to walk through other things that a White House can do without congressional authority,” Corker said this week.

Asked what he wants to hear from Mattis and Tillerson, Corker would not say, instead telling reporters what time the hearing starts.

His Democratic counterpart on the committee, ranking member Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinWashington puts Ethiopia's human rights abusers on notice Overnight Defense: Mattis vows Dreamers in military won't be deported | Pentagon unsure if military parade will be in Washington | Dem bill would block funds for parade Dems introduce bills to block funds for Trump's proposed parade MORE (D-Md.), agreed that the Niger attack has underscored the need for a new AUMF.

“Having said that, the challenge of getting one done is not going to be easier,” he continued. “There are those who believe the president should have broad powers. There’s those of us who are worried about having our troops called in when they shouldn’t. So it’s hard to get that balance.”

Cardin, who does not believe the 2001 AUMF covers ISIS, said it would be counterproductive to debate those legalities on Monday. Rather, he said, it’s time to find out if there can be common ground on time limits, geographic limits and ground troops. 

“I think what we’re going to try to find out is what authorization do they need,” he said. “And to try to see whether we can’t agree on limitations on authorizations that could get us significant — enough support in Congress to pass an AUMF.” 

Though the Foreign Relations Committee has jurisdiction over the AUMF, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLawmakers worry about rise of fake video technology Democrats put Dreamers and their party in danger by playing hardball Trump set a good defense budget, but here is how to make it better MORE (R-Ariz.) has said he is also working on a new authorization in the wake of the Niger attack with Armed Service ranking Democrat Sen. Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Raymond ReedFBI chief: Trump hasn't specifically directed me to stop Russian meddling in midterms Live coverage: FBI director testifies to Senate Intelligence Committee Senate Dems demand answers on cost of Trump's military parade proposal MORE (R.I.).

“Jack Reed and I are talking about an AUMF,” McCain said Thursday. “Obviously this conflict, with Raqqa and Mosul, is moving now into Africa.”

Raqqa, Syria, was ISIS’s de facto capital, while the Iraqi city of Mosul was the largest city ever held by the group. Both cities have been retaken by U.S.-backed forces.

When McCain said that he and Reed have discussed the AUMF issue for years, a reporter replied that that doesn’t bode well for the authorization’s chances. But McCain said the Niger attack could change that. 

“This is the kind of catalyst that argues for an AUMF,” McCain said.