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The Vital Congressional Hearing on the Endless War That Probably Nobody Watched

The "2001 AUMF," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), "has become a blank check for any president to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyplace without the consent or oversight of Congress."

"We cannot afford to wait any longer while these wars expand," said Rep. Barbara Lee at a congressional ad hoc hearing Tuesday. (Photo: Dandelion Salad/flickr/cc)

Taking "an important step towards a long overdue debate and vote," a bipartisan congressional hearing Tuesday afternoon put a spotlight on what is often dubbed a "blank check for war"—the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).

For over 16 years—a time period spanning the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations—the executive branch has leaned on that AUMF to justify wars across the world—from the Philippines to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia—in the name of defeating supposed terrorist organizations, without prior congressional approval.

"We cannot afford to wait any longer while these wars expand. For too long, Congress has ignored our duties on these ongoing wars," said meeting co-chair Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) at the start of the hearing.

Rep. Lee, it should be noted, was the sole member of Congress to vote against the AUMF, which was passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack.

The "2001 AUMF has become a blank check for any president to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyplace without the consent or oversight of Congress," she continued.

As the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which co-hosted the ad hoc hearing along with the House Liberty Caucus, tweeted, "It's time to revisit the U.S. role in military operations around the globe."

Among the experts offering testimony at the hearing was Rita Siemion, international legal counsel at Human Rights First, who noted that not only has the AUMF "been interpreted as authorizing military operations that Congress never intended," it has also been used to justify "a range of human rights abuses from detention without charge or trial to extrajudicial killings via drone strikes far from any battlefield."

Congress, she argued, "must discuss and debate the difficult question of whether the war-centered approach [to counterterrorism] of the past 16 and a half years has been effective." If Congress does decide that continued military force is needed, she laid out what she believes a new AUMF should include:

First, any new AUMF should name the specific enemy that military force is authorized against and specify the permitted mission objectives to prevent the executive branch from overstepping Congress's intent.

Second, any new AUMF should include robust reporting requirements to promote democratic accountability and enable Congress to fulfill its critical oversight functions.

Third, any new AUMF should require compliance with U.S. obligations under international law to demonstrate to our allies and enemies alike that the United States is a nation that complies with the rule of law and is committed to its obligations to respect state sovereignty, human rights  and the law of armed conflict.

Fourth, any new AUMF should include language that makes it clear that it is the sole source of statutory authority to use force against the enemy named in the authorization to avoid overlap, confusion, or loopholes.

And last, but perhaps most importantly, any new AUMF should include a sunset provision that sets a timetable for ensuring continued congressional approval and oversight as the conflict evolves, providing a safeguard against perpetual armed conflict or overly expansive executive interpretations

The executive director of Veterans for Peace, Michael McPhearson, spoke at the hearing as well. "The cost of war to people should compel us to rethink U.S. foreign policy and specifically these current wars," he said, citing the suicide risk veterans face, the pain of "Gold Star families," the pain felt by Iraqis whose children were killed at the hands of U.S. forces, and torture committed by U.S. forces at places like the Abu Ghraib prison.

Veterans for Peace, Human Rights First, and other groups as well as members of Congress took to Twitter to highlight comments from the hearing and the importance of repealing the AUMF:

(Rep. Amash co-chaired the hearing with Rep. Lee.)

In a press statement following the meeting, Lee asserted that the "critical hearing showed that a growing, bipartisan group of Members are calling for a debate and vote on our ongoing wars. We are saying that enough is enough. The 2001 AUMF is a blank check for war—plain and simple."

"For far too long, our brave service members have risked their lives around the world, while Congress has failed to even debate these military operations," her statement continued. "Every day that Congress delays, we become further entangled in these conflicts. We owe it to our men and women in uniform to hold a debate on these endless wars."

Also on Tuesday, 106 members of Congress (including 10 Republicans) signed on to a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) calling on him to lead the chamber in allowing "a serious debate and vote on the use of military force (AUMF)."

"The debate should also allow members the opportunity to debate and vote on the long-term costs and consequences of and alternatives to military action," the letter said.

While praising the signatories "for adding their voices to this critical issue," Yasmine Taeb, director for human rights and civil liberties at Friends Committee on National Legislation, decried how "Congress has abdicated its constitutional duty to decide where and when the United States goes to war."

"This cannot be allowed to continue," she added, "and these representatives recognize the duty and responsibility they have to the American people and the need for Congress to assert its proper role and oversight responsibilities in determining when and where the U.S. goes to war."

Watch the hearing in its entirety below:

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