Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday at 5 p.m.
By Tessa Dolt November 1, 2017 6:30 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The heated debate on Capitol Hill about repealing and replacing the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been of recent concern after the death of four U.S. soldiers in Niger.
Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday regarding the post-9/11 military authorization.
“The 2001 AUMF remains a cornerstone for ongoing U.S. military operations and continues to provide legal authority relied upon to defeat this threat,” Tillerson said.
However, if a new AUMF were to be passed, Tillerson and Mattis both asserted in their opening statements that there should not be any lapse in authority, time constraints, or geographical limits.
Tillerson said that Mattis, the administration, and himself are completely aligned on these three points. Tillerson assured the Senate that, “We fully recognize the need for transparency with you as we respond to what will be a dynamic regional and potentially global issue. We will continue to regularly update Congress to make sure you and the American people understand our foreign policy goals, military operations, and national security objectives.”
Mattis gave a brief overview of the passing of the 2001 and 2002 AUMF. He said, “In the aftermath of the deadly 9/11 attack, and to prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States, Congress passed the 2001 AUMF,” which gave the president authority to take action against terrorist threats. Additionally, “The 2002 AUMF provided the president with authority to and I quote, ‘defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,’” Mattis said.
Mattis expressed some opposition to a new AUMF though. In his opening statement, Mattis said, “Repealing the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs would only cause unnecessary policy and legal uncertainty which could lead to additional litigation and public doubt. The uncertainty accompanying that situation could only signal to our enemies and our friends that we are backing away from this fight.”
The three branches of government all agreed on the 2001 and 2002 AUMF, which was difficult to do, according to Mattis. He said, “Though a statement of continued congressional support would be welcome, a new [war authorization] is not legally required to address the continuing threat posed by Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. questioned the U.S.’s legal authority for being in Niger, to which Mattis said that U.S. troops are there under Article X, carrying out combined patrol with Niger troops.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said, “I’m alarmed that Article X has us involved in civil wars in Africa.” He said that he suspects there’s more going on in Niger than “train and equip.”
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass. asked the two secretaries how they would answer constituents’ concerns when it looks like troops are doing more than a training mission. Markey said, “A training mission can very easily morph into military intervention.”
The U.S. also has troops stationed in Iraq, and “We will remain in Iraq until ISIS is defeated,” Tillerson said. According to him, Prime Minister of Iraq Haider al-Abadi said that he is in no rush for U.S. forces to leave Iraq.
Tillerson said that the troops are there to train local police forces in order to “liberate and stabilize these areas.” He said, however, that the U.S. needs to pull back troops from villages to increase civility in these war-torn areas.
Cardin asked if the president has the authority to pursue Boko Haram atrocities, including the deployment of ground troops. Mattis said, “They [Boko Haram] have quite the allegiance to ISIS. I believe he [Trump] would have the authority to address Boko Haram threats because it’s an associated group of ISIS.”
Markey asked if the administration would need congressional authority to take action against an imminent threat on the U.S., to which Tillerson said, “It is a question of the threat and severity of it.”
The Senate committee were keen on understanding what classifies as an imminent threat to the U.S. with specific concerns to North Korea’s possession of a nuclear weapon.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. said, “It’s essential for the president to have clear authority to respond, but the president or any one person should not be able to authorize a first-use nuclear strike without the Congress’ approval.”
Both Mattis and Tillerson confirmed that there’s no congressional authorization of the use of military force against North Korea.
Merkley asked if Mattis is concerned that Trump will authorize a first-use nuclear strike on a country that has not striked against the U.S., and will do so without the Congress’ approval. Mattis said that he does not like to talk in hypotheticals, but Merkley said he no longer feels that the situation is hypothetical.
“What if there’s no time for AUMF in the event of a nuclear strike?” Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho asked. It depends on President Trump’s decision, according to Mattis. “Ballistic missiles would do what they’re designed to do,” Mattis said. “Congress would be intimately involved.”
Current members of Congress were not intimately involved in the AUMF, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. He said that none of the members of Senate in the room were present for the 2001 and 2002 AUMF decision. Flake said that fewer than 100 members of the House were at the 2001 AUMF vote and 70 percent of Congress hadn’t voted on either AUMF. “Our troops need to know that we speak with one voice,” Flake said. “We ought to aspire to be more than a feedback loop.”
Paul gave an intense speech in front of the Senate committee, stating that Congress should reassert their power and limit executive powers on the AUMF. He said, “We haven’t been checking and balancing the executive branch for 60 some odd years, maybe longer.”
Tillerson said, “You can’t fight war with a collective approach. You need a commander-in-chief,” but according to Paul, “Initiation of war comes from Congress.”
Tillerson said that the current situation with ISIS does not elicit a declaration of war. “[ISIS] is a very unique and unusual group that we don’t know for how long we’ll be fighting. That is the nature of this situation.” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., questioned how the 2001 and 2002 AUMF applied to ISIS, to which Mattis said, “They [ISIS] change their name as often as a rock and roll band.”
“This is a fight against the transnational enemy, one that doesn’t respect its inadequate borders,” Mattis said. According to him, a new AUMF “would have to be an authorization that defines this enemy sufficiently, that is does not restrict our operations in the field, and sets a condition under which we are to fight for an objective.”
In a closing statement, Cardin said, “I think there’s a real willingness among us to work together to modernize the AUMF.”