By Alexander Reed Kelly
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating. Nominate our next Truthdigger here.
Pentagon officials said Thursday during a Senate hearing on Authorization for the Use of Military Force, enacted by Congress in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, that the global war on terror could last up to 20 more years, and that its legal mandate gives the president the power to wage war anywhere on the globe for as long as he deems necessary.
Sen. Angus King was the lone voice of sanity at the creepy hearing, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham goaded two reluctant-to-speak Pentagon officials, Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Sheehan and the acting general counsel of the Defense Department, Robert Taylor, into agreeing that the United States is in a “worldwide struggle” against “international terrorism,” that “the war against radical Islam, or terror … will go on after the second term of President Obama,” and that “the battlefield is wherever the enemy chooses to make it.”
Of course Graham’s formulation is not as simple as he makes it out to be. Enemies of the United States are created wherever and whenever the government chooses to interfere militarily in the affairs of foreign people.
King did not say as much, but he did describe the hearing as the most “astoundingly disturbing” session he had attended since taking office this year, in addition to accusing the Obama administration and the Pentagon officials of rewriting the Constitution. First, the independent from Maine reminded everyone present that only Congress has the power to declare war. Then he states that the AUMF was adopted exclusively to fight the individuals who were directly responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001—not just anyone the government may wish to attack, and which the generals attempt to include in the mandate by referring to them as “associated forces,” a term that appears nowhere in the 2001 document.
“[Y]ou’re reading this AUMF in such a way as to apply clearly outside of what it says,” King said. “Senator McCain was absolutely right: It refers to the people who planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks on September 11. That’s a date. … It doesn’t go into the future. And then it says, ‘or harbored such organizations’—past tense—‘or persons in order to prevent any future acts by such nations, organizations or persons.’ ”
“I don’t disagree that we need to fight terrorism,” he continued. “But we need to do it in a constitutionally sound way. Now, I’m just a little, old lawyer from Brunswick, Maine, but I don’t see how you can possibly read this to be in comport with the Constitution and authorize any acts by the president.”
Sheehan responded by listing prior attacks perpetrated by al-Qaida, and by saying in effect that all past, present and future affiliates of the organization were responsible for the 9/11 attack and thus eligible for targeting under the AUMF.
The “organization that attacked us on 9/11 already had its tentacles in—around the world with associated groups,” he said. “That was the nature of the organization then; it is the nature of the organization now. In order to attack that organization, we have to attack it with those affiliates that are its operational arm that have previously attacked and killed Americans, and at high-level interests, and continue to try to do that.”
King responded in the manner of a baffled high school teacher dealing with a student who is determined to fail a test in reading comprehension. “That’s fine, he said, “but that’s not what the AUMF says. … We may need new authority, but don’t—if you expand this to the extent that you have, it’s meaningless, and the limitation in the war power is meaningless. I’m not disagreeing that we need to attack terrorism wherever it comes from and whoever is doing it. But what I’m saying is, let’s do it in a constitutional way, not by putting a gloss on a document that clearly won’t support it.”
“It just—it just doesn’t—it just doesn’t work,” he continued, stammering.” I’m just reading the words. It’s all focused on September 11 and who was involved. … Why not say—come back to us and say, ‘Yes, you’re correct that this is an overbroad reading that renders the war powers of the Congress a nullity; therefore, we need new authorization to respond to the new situation’? I don’t understand why—I mean, I do understand it, because the way you read it, there’s no limit. But that’s not what the Constitution contemplates.”
For more than a decade now, Americans have been governed by a class of people who exhibit little-to-no sense of responsibility to understand the constitutional limitations on their actions. They simply do what they as a class wish—and damn the consequences. With a Justice Department that is very much a part of that class, serving as the official trained dog of the White House, there is little-to-no reason for them to fear they will be investigated and prosecuted for their actions. The goal is not to end the war on terror, but to fuel the means to their own power, prestige and profits. And as these Pentagon officials admitted this week, one of the means to those ends is indefinite, runaway war-making.
King’s objection fell short of an unequivocal indictment of the unconstitutionality of the last 12 years of American military adventures. But his insistence that the Obama administration adhere to the rule of law with regard to the document that enables those wars gave Americans another chance to see how little respect their government has for the rules and the lives and well-being those rules were intended to protect. For affording us that revelation, we honor Sen. Angus King as our Truthdigger of the Week.
See King’s exchange with the Pentagon officials in “Democracy Now’s” coverage of the Senate hearing below.
Sen. Tim Kaine, left, listens as Sen. Angus King speaks during a hearing Thursday on the law of armed conflict, the use of military force, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force.