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: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move MORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonOvernight Defense: Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital | Mattis, Tillerson reportedly opposed move | Pentagon admits 2,000 US troops are in Syria | Trump calls on Saudis to 'immediately' lift Yemen blockade Trump has yet to name ambassadors to key nations in Mideast Mattis, Tillerson warned Trump of security concerns in Israel embassy move 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 Michael KaineDemocrats turn on Al Franken Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank 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.

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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 CorkerFormer Dem Tenn. gov to launch Senate bid: report McConnell 'almost certain' GOP will pass tax reform Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' 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 CardinDems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress Former New Mexico gov: Trump's foreign policy is getting 'criticized by everybody' Dems put hold on McFarland nomination over contradictory testimony: report 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 McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress 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 ReedSenate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Army leader on waiver report: 'There's been no change in standards' 15 Dems urge FEC to adopt new rules for online political ads 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.