Fifteen years on, authorization for the use of military force must go
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It was just one sentence, but it opened one of the most consequential chapters in recent history. Fifteen years ago today, Congress nearly unanimously passed the 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF). Hastily drafted in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, its 60 words laid a foundation vulnerable to dangerously expansive interpretation, and indeed became the purported legal underpinning for an expanded global war machine that persists to this day. Even as the world and its conflicts have evolved and changed since then, the words of the AUMF remain exactly the same. On this anniversary, a pressing question emerges – how much longer will the AUMF endure?

The case against the AUMF’s continued existence is damning indeed. Although the Bush administration didn’t actually believe it needed congressional approval for its “war on terror” operations, it was nonetheless politically bolstered by the AUMF to claim sweeping powers for itself. The Obama administration has carried forward this perverse vision, in which it views the entire globe as a potential battlefield where the laws of armed conflict perpetually apply.

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Given the United States’ long-standing reluctance to apply international human rights law to its own conduct, particularly overseas, the broad nature of the AUMF’s wording was always going to be dangerous in the post-9/11 context.  And sure enough, its adoption was followed by a mountain of human rights violations perpetuated by the U.S. government under its auspices.

There has been impunity for the torture and other forms cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment carried out by the CIA, which included waterboarding, mock executions, and sexual abuse. A Pakistani woman standing alone in a field died in front of her grandchildren when she was struck by a Hellfire missile - just one of the individuals killed by drone strikes conducted with little to no accountability. An elaborate system of warrantless surveillance threatens privacy rights domestically and internationally, and 61 individuals remain indefinitely detained without charge or fair trial in Guantánamo. These are just some of the abuses carried out under two presidents with the acquiescence of Congress, justified under a seemingly limitless interpretation of the AUMF’s grant of power.

The long-term consequences of that perceived power are dire. Regardless of one’s thoughts about whether the U.S. should engage in war or use force, it is unquestionable that the global, permanent armed conflict paradigm - that two presidents have now justified under the AUMF - carries massive potential for human rights violations. Congress and U.S. courts have legitimized that expansive interpretation by deferring to the executive’s interpretation of the AUMF, leaving future presidents to inherit seemingly open-ended power to engage in still-unknown abuses with impunity.

Of course, it’s easy to see why this dangerous authorization has not yet been rescinded. It’s not clear that either the president or Congress have much incentive to get rid of it. The broad interpretation of the AUMF has created a system in which major national security decisions-- about how to conduct air strikes or whether to put entire countries under surveillance, for instance—are seen as resting in the hands of the president alone. This frees members of Congress from debating difficult issues or taking politically unpopular votes, and allows the executive a veneer of virtually unchecked authority. Indeed, although President Obama paid lip service to a new approach when he  pledged to “refine, and ultimately repeal” the AUMF, his administration’s proposal for a new force authorization against ISIS didn’t even mention the pre-existing 2001 AUMF, much less include a provision for its repeal.

The reliable marketability of fear also fuels the AUMF’s continued lifespan. As actual and perceived threats continue to emerge, it remains politically advantageous to peddle fear. To be sure, the global threat posed by armed groups is real, and the public holds legitimate safety concerns. But many elected officials continue to conflate human rights violations, such as indefinite detention at Guantánamo, with the protection of U.S. security. They find it more politically expedient to promote fear than to critically debate and legislate on how to conduct counterterrorism operations that actually make communities safe—without sacrificing human rights.

That is precisely why the AUMF must at last be withdrawn. It would demonstrate Congress’ recognition that the authorization it passed so many years ago has been exploited to justify abuses that continue to this day, and will certainly continue into the future absent a swift change of course. It would also relieve Congress of an excuse for failing to engage in meaningful oversight, and deprive the president of a congressionally-supported claim to blank check authority. These are things that can and should be accomplished even while the AUMF remains in force – but its repeal would generate much-needed momentum.

If the United States is ever to discard the ugly abuses that it has adopted in the name of national security, and to instead build a future centered on human rights, the answer is clear: It's been fifteen years too long already, and the AUMF must go.

Margaret L. Huang is the Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International USA


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.