By Zachary Stieber
President Donald Trump’s authority to order a strike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani came from the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF) passed in 2002, the White House said.
The authorization gave President George W. Bush the authority to order military action against those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, as well as any “associated forces.”
“Whereas, on Sept. 11, 2001, acts of treacherous violence were committed against the United States and its citizens; and Whereas, such acts render it both necessary and appropriate that the United States exercise its rights to self-defense and to protect United States citizens both at home and abroad,” the resolution passed by Congress states.
“The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons,” the resolution states.
Trump ordered an airstrike that killed Soleimani near Baghdad International Airport overnight on Jan. 3.
“The president exercised America’s clear and inherent right of self-defense to counter this threat. It was a fully authorized action under the 2002 AUMF and was consistent with his constitutional authority as commander-in-chief to defend our nation and our forces against attacks like those that Soleimani has directed in the past and was plotting now,” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters in a call on Friday.
Soleimani Planning Attack
American military leaders said they learned Soleimani was planning an attack on U.S. interests.
“Soleimani was in the Middle East, in Iraq, and traveling around the Middle East. He had just come from Damascus, where he was planning attacks on American soldiers, airmen, Marines, sailors, and against our diplomats. So this strike was aimed at disrupting ongoing attacks that were being planned by Soleimani, and deterring future Iranian attacks, through their proxies or through the IRGC Quds Force directly, against Americans,” O’Brien said.
Trump told reporters in Florida that the strike was carried out “to stop a war.”
O’Brien explained further after a reporter asked about the thought process behind Trump authorizing the strike.
“While there’s always a risk in taking decisive action, there’s a greater risk in not taking that action. And the president just was not prepared to risk the lives of American service men and women and our diplomats, given Soleimani’s history and his efforts to further destabilize the region and the imminent nature of the attacks that he was planning on Americans in Iraq and in other locations,” he said.
“So once the president had that information and the national security principals were aware of that information, that was a very straightforward decision for the president to make the call on this.”
Move to Revoke AUMF
Some Democrats said in the wake of the strike against Soleimani they want to revoke the authorization from the AUMF, while others said the post-9/11 AUMF didn’t authorize Trump to take action against Iran.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF, said in a statement: “The Trump administration has acted without any consultation with Congress or an authorization to use military force. It is beyond clear that Congress must act urgently to repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorization of the Use of Military Force.”
“Events of the past day make it clear that we are long overdue for a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). The current AUMF is too broad and we cannot give Trump or any president a blank check to get us into unnecessary conflict without Congressional authorization,” added Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.).
Some members of the House said they were working to pass the AUMF Clarification Act. “There can be no war with Iran without the express approval of Congress—that must be clear,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.). And a joint resolution introduced by Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) this week that would direct the removal of U.S. forces “from hostilities against the Islamic Republic of Iran that have not been authorized by Congress.”
The Congressional Research Service, billed as nonpartisan, shared staff to congressional committees and members of Congress, said in a report (pdf) published Dec. 30, 2019, that presidents aren’t authorized to take force against Iran.
“Although presidents have long asserted wide-ranging authority to unilaterally initiate the use of military force, no legislation has been enacted authorizing the use of force against Iran, and several measures include provisions specifying that such authorization is not being granted,” it stated.
It cited several bills, including the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2020, which stated, “Nothing in this act may be construed as authorizing the use of force against Iran.” The act, as passed by the House, would repeal the AUMF within 240 days of enactment. The act has not been brought to a vote in the Senate.
The Senate rejected an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act later passed just before Christmas that would have prohibited using any funds to “conduct hostilities against the government of Iran, against the armed forces of Iran, or in the territory of Iran, except pursuant to an act or joint resolution of Congress specifically authorizing such hostilities.”
The report noted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested to a Senate committee in April 2019 that the AUMF could potentially apply to Iran, asserting the country “hosted al-Qaida. They have permitted al-Qaida to transit their country. [There’s] no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republic of Iran and al-Qaida. Period. Full stop.”
Vice President Mike Pence, listing the reasons the United States killed Soleimani, said on Friday that the general helped 10 of the terrorists responsible for 9/11 travel clandestinely to Afghanistan. According to the 9/11 Commission Report (pdf), “8 to 10 of the 14 Saudi ‘muscle’ operatives traveled into or out of Iran between October 2000 and February 2001.”
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