After two decades, Congress is repealing the president’s nearly unlimited war power

9 /11 was, for those who remember it vividly, terrifying. It’s right there in the world “terrorism.” On that day, and in the days and weeks after, it was hard to fathom that this was the same year we were introduced to “Island in the Sun.” It was a different world – a scarier world. And Americans have pretty much just the one response to being scared.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Restrict, Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 dramatically expanded the federal government’s powers to snoop on citizens, coordinate counterterrorism efforts, and prosecute anyone suspected of planning, scheming, imagining, or daydreaming an act of terrorism. If “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Restrict, Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” sounds like an extremely long and convoluted name, it is. The bill’s authors, allies and members of the Bush administration, penned a lengthy title that would conveniently be abbreviated USA PATRIOT Act. The country was slammed into patriotic overdrive, decrying terrorists as enemies of American freedom and liberty and anyone who questioned the federal government’s efforts to keep Americans free and liber…tous (certainly not liberal, gosh no) were themselves questioned. Did they really love America?

Sixty-six members of the House voted against the Patriot Act, among them Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA 9, now CA 13). Lee was the sole member to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001, which allowed President George W. Bush “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 September 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.” Lee argued that the authorization was far too broad. After all, if an organization sheltered a person who planned the attacks, and a nation sheltered a branch of that organization, that nation could be attacked. I mean, not any nation, obviously, but theoretically any nation.

Sure enough, President Bush conceived of a “War on Terror” that would go beyond the concept of justice or retribution for the 9/11 attacks, and in 2002 Congress authorized military action against Iraq. This authorization wasn’t strictly necessary, as al-Qaeda was known to operate in Iraq and therefore the initial authorization would suffice, but the Bush administration wanted to remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and to do that they needed to be able to justify taking him on directly.

Fast forward eighteen years to President Donald Trump, whose administration claimed that the 2002 authorization against Iraq justified an airstrike that killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was in Iraq at the time but his death was stunning, as the United States had not declared war on Iran. But, the Trump administration said, the 2002 resolution gives the president the power to “use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to… defend the national security of the United States
against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” and that any action to undermine Iraqi security – which, the administration argued, Soleimani was doing (and they’re not necessarily wrong, particularly if you want Iraq to remain an ally of the U.S.) – constituted a “threat posted by Iraq” to “the national security of the United States.”

Taken together, the 2001 and 2002 authorizations give the president the ability to wage war almost anywhere in the world provided he can argue that it’s linked to 9/11 or the situation in Iraq. Consider ISIS, an off-shoot of al-Qaeda that tried to take control of Iraq. That gave the White House carte blanche to deploy troops almost anywhere they wanted. ISIS is in Syria? The U.S. is in Syria. ISIS is in Yemen? The U.S. is in Yemen. Iraq explicitly asks the U.S. to draw down troops because it is ready to govern and defend itself? But what if ISIS comes back?

Every year for a decade, Rep. Lee has tried to get Congress to repeal the military authorizations. After all, Congress can simply reapprove them if it needs to. Congress used to have the power to declare war before it transferred that power to the White House. Her calls to repeal the authorizations went unheard at first.

But after the killing of Soleimani, Democrats saw that an unruly president could use the authorizations as justification to expand U.S. military involvement or even launch a whole new war. After all, if Iran had declared war over Soleimani’s death, the U.S. would have been “forced” into responding, and some suspect this was the administration’s goal (it was certainly a goal of former national security adviser John Bolton). Plus, the Biden administration doesn’t want endless war powers, a major shift from the three previous administrations which, although they might have paid lip service to ending U.S. military conflicts overseas, did little to actually wind them down.

Instead, the administration wants a “narrow and specific framework” that can replace the 2001 authorization against terrorism – and total abolition of the 2002 authorization. Reforming the way the U.S. responds to potential terrorist threats, and ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq as an occupying power, would provide a route to stability for the U.S. and the world.