Top Democrats demand State Department's legal analysis on potential Iran military action

Top Democrats demand State Department's legal analysis on potential Iran military action
© Greg Nash

Two top House Democrats are demanding the State Department’s legal analysis of a potential military strike against Iran.

In a letter Wednesday to the State Department’s acting legal adviser, Marik String, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelFurious Republicans prepare to rebuke Trump on Syria Democrats to offer resolution demanding Trump reverse Syria decision Sunday shows — Officials rush to Trump's defense on Syria, sanctions MORE (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Ted DeutchTheodore (Ted) Eliot DeutchHouse Ethics Committee reviewing two GOP lawmakers over campaign finance House Ethics panel reviewing Tlaib over campaign salary Gun epidemic is personal for lawmakers touched by violence MORE (D-Fla.) asked for any and all documents on whether the 2001 or 2002 war authorizations are applicable to military action against Iran.

“Given the life-and-death stakes of the current situation between the United States and Iran, we can think of no issue where it is more imperative for the department to explain its rationale for, interpretation of, and limits upon the legal authorities that have been provided by the Congress, a co-equal branch of government that the Constitution vests with the sole power to declare war,” wrote Engel and Deutch, who is the chairman of the committee’s Middle East subcommittee.

The pair requested documents by 9 a.m. Friday, adding that if the department doesn’t meet that deadline, “we will be forced to consider other measures to obtain them.”

The letter comes as U.S.-Iran tensions have escalated. On Tuesday, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE threatened that an Iranian attack on “anything” American would be met with “great and overwhelming force.”

Trump’s Tuesday threat stood in contradiction to his decision last week that a U.S. military strike with an estimated 150-person death toll was not a proportional response to Iran shooting down a U.S. drone.

Trump also told Hill.TV on Monday he does not believe he needs congressional authorization to strike Iran.

Publicly and, lawmakers say, privately, administration officials have asserted a link between Iran and al Qaeda. Democrats fear the Trump administration is building a case to use the 2001 authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) for military action against Iran.

The 2001 AUMF was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to authorize military action against al Qaeda and other perpetrators of the attacks. An AUMF was also passed in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War.

Amid the Iran tensions, Democrats and some Republicans are scrambling to constrain Trump’s ability to launch a military strike.

In the Senate, Democrats are demanding a vote on an amendment to the annual defense policy bill that would block funding for military action against Iran without congressional authorization.

House lawmakers, including typical Trump ally Rep. Matt GaetzMatthew (Matt) GaetzGOP, Trump look to smother impeachment inquiry GOP lawmaker: 'Chairman Schiff is acting like a malicious Captain Kangaroo' Gaetz: Some lawmakers reviewed transcript at White House MORE (R-Fla.), introduced a similar amendment for the House’s version of the defense bill. The House amendment is expected to get a floor vote.

At a House Foreign Affairs hearing last week, Brian Hook, the administration’s special envoy for Iran, repeatedly declined to answer questions on whether the administration believes the 2001 AUMF applies to Iran, instead telling lawmakers to submit a request to the State Department’s legal adviser.

“We hereby submit that request,” Engel and Deutch wrote Wednesday. “We will be abundantly clear: as several members stated during the June 20 hearing, Congress has not authorized the President to attack Iran under any legal theory, including under the 2001 or 2002 AUMF.”