Barbara Lee and Dick Durbin's 'Nobody-Could-Have-Known' Defense

The standard Beltway excuse to justify bad acts fails to explain the radically overbroad 2001 AUMF

Various senators are reportedly considering changes to the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) in light of how far beyond its scope US military action is now routinely deployed. That may seem like a welcome development, but as Marcy Wheeler notes, the officials involved and the "experts" on whom they're relying strongly suggest that any changes would entail expanding and broadening this authorization, not narrowing or rescinding it. One of the Senators who is pushing for changes is Democrat Dick Durbin, who said this:

None of us, not one who voted for it, could have envisioned we were voting for the longest war in American history or that we were about to give future presidents the authority to fight terrorism as far flung as Yemen and Somalia. I don't think any of us envisioned that possibility."

This is a common tactic in Washington political and media circles: whenever they do something destructive and wrong, they exonerate themselves with this "nobody-could-have-known" formulation: yes, we turned out to be horribly wrong, but nobody could have known at the time that this would happen. But almost always, not only could someone have known, and not only should someone have known, but someone - usually many people - did know. They just weren't the kind of people that those making this claim believe are worth listening to.

Immediately after the 9/11 attack, Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California knew exactly that which Durbin now says nobody "could have envisioned". She not only knew it, but she stood up on the floor of the Congress a mere three days after the 9/11 attack in order to cast the lone vote against the AUMF, citing precisely these dangers:

"[W]e must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.

"In 1964, Congress gave President Lyndon Johnson the power to 'take all necessary measures' to repel attacks and prevent further aggression. In so doing, this House abandoned its own constitutional responsibilities and launched our country into years of undeclared war in Vietnam.

"At this time, Senator Wayne Morse, one of the two lonely votes against the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, declared, 'I believe that history will record that we have made a grave mistake in subverting and circumventing the Constitution of the United States. I believe that with the next century, future generations will look with dismay and great disappointment upon a Congress which is now about to make such a historic mistake.'

"Senator Morse was correct, and I fear we make the same mistake today."

The video of a portion of Rep. Lee's obviously emotional and courageous warnings on the floor of the House, delivered on September 14, 2001 in opposition to the AUMF, is here:

In a September 23, 2001 interview with the LA Times, as controversy continued over her 434-1 lone vote, she elaborated on the rationale for her opposition even as she made clear that she did not oppose the use of any and all military force as a response to the 9/11 attack:

"I'm opposed to granting that broad power to any president. I believe Congress has got to be part of the decision-making process when we're talking about going to war against sovereign nations. This resolution, even though it was focused on the World Trade Center attack, is open-ended. It doesn't have an exit strategy; it does not have any reporting requirements. And the president already has authority to use force [internationally for 60 days without congressional approval] under the War Powers Act. So what was this about?. . .

"I agonized over this vote. We're all mourning. We're angry and frustrated. I felt that [someone] in this environment of grief needed to say let's show some restraint in our response. Let's not do anything that could escalate this madness out of control. Let's know the implications of our actions, and let's make sure that our system of checks and balances is maintained. We need to figure out a way to stamp out international terrorism and bring these perpetrators to justice without creating more loss of life. . . . We need to know where we're going and who we're going after."

In an Op-Ed she wrote for her hometown Oakland Post on September 26, she further explained her vote this way, again presciently warning of exactly the dangers that Durbin now claims nobody could have foreseen:

"Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events - anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation's long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit.

"In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk."

Lee also inspired others to speak out with the same warnings. The syndicated columnist William Raspberry, on September 25, wrote: "I don't know that Barbara Lee will ever be vindicated in the eyes of those who see her as the next thing to a traitor. I only know that a lot of people, myself included, are having second thoughts about how important, useful or relevant it is to cast the unspeakable evil unleashed on America two weeks ago in terms of war." He added: "as so often happens when some great evil disrupts our lives and threatens our sense of security, we are in danger of becoming the very thing we hate."

To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that "Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America's enemies - from Fidel Castro on down." On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both "stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans." National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz's denunciation that "Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America's enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America." Michelle Malkin labelled her "treacherous" and also quoted Horowitz's attack. Letters to the Editor sprung up in newspapers across this country similar to this one from J. Keith Wedinger in the Columbus Dispatch:

"I simply cannot believe the gall and the absolute insensitivity of U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.. How can she possibly be the only member of both houses of Congress to vote against the resolution allowing any and all necessary force to be used to retaliate for the horrific attacks endured by this nation?

"I hope her name is printed in big, bold letters in all California newspapers describing her vote as an near act of treason against the United States. I hope residents of her district ask for her immediate resignation."

Barbara Lee's lone vote against the 2001 AUMF - three days after the 9/11 attack - was an act of incredible and rare courage that is worth commemorating in its own right. But it was also prescient and wise, using America's past bad acts to warn of the dangers likely to be unleashed by enacting it. If Dick Durbin wants to acknowledge his gross error in voting in favor of such a blank check for presidential war-making - one that led to 12 years of war in numerous nations with no end in sight - he should do so honestly. Instead of pretending that nobody could possibly have known this would happen as a deceitful means of excusing his bad acts, he should instead acknowledge that there were people who did know and tried to warn the nation about it, but those weren't the types of voices to which he paid any attention because they weren't emanating from the Pentagon, the Brookings Institution and the columns of Tom Friedman. That is the mistake he should acknowledge and learn to rectify.

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