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Making It Official: Hunting Al-Qaida Worldwide

This week, the House begins debate on a defense spending bill that would authorize the president to attack al-Qaida and its associates all over the world.

Supporters say the measure would give the U.S. more leeway to fight terrorists after the death of Osama bin Laden. But critics worry that it hands the White House too much power.

The last time Congress waded into this debate was September 2001, a week after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans. Lawmakers passed an Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) against the people who planned those attacks and the countries that harbored them; it didn't mention al-Qaida.

Well, a lot has changed in 10 years: Bin Laden is dead, and al-Qaida has taken root in Yemen and Somalia. Bobby Chesney, who teaches national security law at the University of Texas, says now might be a good time to update the law to cover new groups that are striking American troops.

"Groups like that, that are not in any way encompassed by the original AUMF by its own terms, but that very clearly are engaging in combat operations against our soldiers in Afghanistan — of course we should have a clear legal foundation for fighting back against them," Chesney says.

The defense authorization bill up for consideration by the House this week would do just that. The bill says the U.S. is at war with al-Qaida, the Taliban and associated forces. It gives the White House the power to take action against anyone who belongs to those groups or anyone who supports them, anywhere in the world.

For human rights lawyer David Remes, that's going too far.

"The fact of the matter is that it's a radical expansion of existing authority that would commit the United States to open-ended policing of the world. It would in effect make the United States the master of the world," says Remes, who works with the Washington-based Appeal for Justice.

Congress is giving up too much, Remes says. "It's a blank check to the president to wage war."

But Charles "Cully" Stimson, who worked on defense policy in the Bush administration, couldn't disagree more.

"It's not a blank check," Stimson says. "In fact, it fills in the blanks."

Stimson, now a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the new defense bill finally makes explicit that the administration can hold detainees until the end of any hostilities.

[New terrorist groups] are not in any way encompassed by the original AUMF ... but very clearly are engaging in combat operations against our soldiers in Afghanistan.

"It puts to rest this nagging argument that we've seen over and over and over again, that the AUMF does not specifically authorize detention," he says.

Those arguments are still nagging at human rights groups.

Laura Murphy, who runs the Washington legislative office at the American Civil Liberties Union, says if the House bill moves forward, the conflict might never end.

"It could be like the war on drugs," she says. "No one has declared an end to the war on drugs."

Because the measure doesn't say the conflict is confined to, say, Iraq or Afghanistan, Murphy fears that it could lead to some alarming situations.

"Unlike the Authorization for Use of Military Force that was passed in 2001, it has no geographic boundaries, so the president could take America to war in any country in the world, including inside the United States itself," she adds.

Critics have another concern. The defense authorization bill moved through the House Armed Services Committee earlier this month in a marathon session. The provision that authorizes military force got only a few minutes of debate, after midnight.

Human rights groups hope the measure gets a more careful look this week. They have one final option: the Senate.

"The Senate has an obligation to be much more deliberative than the House has been, and to really give this particular provision full and fair hearings and debate," Murphy says.

Michael B. Mukasey, an attorney general in the Bush administration, told the bill's House sponsors Friday that the measure is "both timely and constructive."

Mukasey wrote to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon that the legislation "would add order and rationality to what has been an improvisational exercise overseen by judges who do not have the fact-finding resources of Congress or the accountability that comes from being responsible for protecting national security."

For its part, the White House has remained silent about its views on the legislation. In court cases filed by Guantanamo Bay detainees, President Obama has implied that he is taking a lot of the authority to hold terrorism suspects that the House is debating whether to give him outright.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.

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