Since the 9/11 attacks, the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly argued that the legal authority for most of their counter-terrorism activities, including drone operations and targeted killing and the growing U.S. military presence in Africa, is the law authorizing the use of force enacted a week after the Twin Towers fell [Public Law 107-40]. As an article in the Washington Post today reveals, however, that law covers only people and entities directly linked to the al Qaeda attackers. The law has been stretched to cover actions against "offshoots" of Osama Bin Laden's group. This situation also creates incentives for American counter-terrorist planners to find links to al Qaeda, however, tenuous, to justify military actions.
This ain't the way to run a war. It would help if Congress passed some new measure, but any such law would have to confront difficult issues of defining adversaries and placing some limits on the nature and size of the force authorized.
That's what Congress did in 2001. The Bush White House wanted authority to go after any terrorist anywhere who might be thinking about attacking Americans. The Senate leadership, Tom Daschle [D-SD] and Trent Lott [R-MS], wisely resisted giving that blank check and instead agreed to a measure limited to those directly connected to the 9/11 attacks.They also failed to include a White House request to authorize use of force inside the United States. Cleverly, the leaders adjourned the Senate for several days immediately after its vote, forcing the Republican-controlled House to accept the Senate language or cause a delay in passing the bill. [A year later, debating the authorizing of force against Iraq, the House bipartisan leadership pulled a similar ploy, undercutting Senate efforts to limit the mission of the war against Iraq.]