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Authorization For The Use Of Military Force Could Be Up For Update In Senate


An American Air Force fighter shot down an Iranian-made drone in Syria today. It was the latest such encounter as tensions escalate in the war in Syria, a war that Congress never authorized the U.S. to join. Some lawmakers are uncomfortable with that, and they're beginning to consider a new authorization to guide the military's long-lasting conflicts overseas. NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As he gaveled in today's hearing, Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Foreign Relations panel, noted that the U.S. has been fighting the Islamic State for nearly three years under an authorization for the use of military force passed just days after the 9/11 attacks.


BOB CORKER: We are approaching the day when an American soldier will deploy to combat under legal authority that was passed before they were born.

WELNA: Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat, noted that the measure still being used was aimed specifically at al-Qaida.


BEN CARDIN: It was against those who attacked us on 9/11. And now we see that authorization being used against groups that weren't in existence on 9/11.

WELNA: And Arizona Republican Jeff Flake noted that more than two-thirds of current House members were not in Congress 16 years ago.


JEFF FLAKE: You want to know how many senators voted on the 2001 AUMF? Twenty-three. So three-quarters of this body has not voted on an AUMF. When you have a situation like that, we are not speaking with one voice. We are let off the hook.

WELNA: But it was John Bellinger, a former Bush administration lawyer who helped draft the original use of force authorization, who told the committee that continuing to rely on that measure today presents real legal pitfalls.


JOHN BELLINGER: Current law is unclear now as to whether the fight that is being fought is actually legally backed by Congress. And if it actually comes to detention and we start detaining members of ISIS, members of ISIS, if they have an opportunity to get into court, are certainly going to say that it's not authorized by Congress.

WELNA: Indiana Republican Todd Young had a question for Bellinger.


TODD YOUNG: If in one year, two years, God forbid five years, U.S. forces remain engaged in hostilities against ISIS and Congress still has not passed an AUMF, why do you believe the average American, the rank-and-file Hoosier, should be concerned?

BELLINGER: I would say to the American people you should be concerned that our Congress, while saying that they are backing the military, is not giving the military the legal support that they need. Congress does not have your backs legally.

WELNA: Pointing to the Syrian war plane shot down over the weekend by the U.S., Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy said without new limits imposed by Congress there could be...


CHRIS MURPHY: A developing war between the United States and the Syrian regime that may end up in a major shooting conflict.

WELNA: Former Bush White House lawyer Bellinger said he, too, was worried.


BELLINGER: On Syria, I have to say just on the law I was puzzled about the statements coming out of the Pentagon that the shoot-down was authorized by the 2001 AUMF.

WELNA: Yesterday, General Joe Dunford, who's chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the U.S. is acting lawfully in Syria.


JOE DUNFORD: We are there and have legal justification under the authorization to use military force. We are prosecuting the campaign against ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria.

WELNA: But at today's hearing, Kentucky Republican Rand Paul sharply disagreed with what Dunford said.


RAND PAUL: There's supposed to be no war without an AUMF. We have been illegally at war for a long time now. This is illegal war at this point.

WELNA: The Senate Foreign Relations panel is considering a bipartisan proposal for a new authorization for the use of military force. It would require that those groups being targeted be named, and it would list a handful of nations where they could be pursued. Chairman Corker said this discussion will continue, and he promised that on behalf of the committee he would formally ask the Trump administration to explain what authority is being relied on to fight the widening war in Syria. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.