May 16, 2013 2:00PM

After the AUMF

Georgetown University’s Jennifer Daskal, and Stephen Vladeck, an associate dean in the College of Law at American University, have posted a working paper (.pdf) regarding the 12+ year old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) at the Lawfare blog that is receiving, and deserves, some attention. The shorter version in today’s New York Times is receiving even more attention, presumably.

“After the AUMF” is written, in part, as a response to a Hoover Institution proposal (.pdf) that would replace the existing AUMF with, as Daskal and Vladeck describe it, “a new blanket framework statute authorizing the use of military force against as‐​yet‐​undetermined future terrorist organizations, and to delegate to the Executive Branch the authority to delegate those organizations against which such force may be used if and when the time comes.”

The crux of the Daskal‐​Vladeck critique rests on their claim that such a framework is unnecessary, and, worse, counterproductive. They explain that we should be trying to end, rather than extend, the war on terror, and that existing authorities (including many that have expanded since 9/11) are more than sufficient to protect the country against terrorist attacks. Should those authorities prove insufficient in the future (for example, if an as‐​yet‐​unknown terrorist organization materializes and plots attacks against the United States), Congress would retain the ability to pass a new AUMF–and would likely do so quite quickly, if past history is any guide. Lastly, they claim that the war frame, in general, undermines the nation’s counterterrorism goals by engendering hostility and resistance across a broad spectrum, from innocent civilians to heads of nation states, who resist being drawn into a never‐​ending war.

Although I am broadly sympathetic with the idea that we should move away from thinking of counterterrorism as a war, thus demanding a military response (about which I have written book chapters here and here), I believe that the most important of the Daskal‐​Vladeck objections revolves around the Hoover proposal’s apparent disdain for Congress, and its willingness to grant more power to the Executive Branch. The Hoover proposal claims that this would be an improvement over the current system, because it would give “the president the flexibility he needs to address emerging threats” and would “render more transparent and regularized the now very murky process by which organizations and their members are deemed to fall within the September 2001 AUMF.”

Elsewhere the Hoover paper claims that such a blanket predelegation of authority is required because “Congress probably cannot or will not, on a continuing basis, authorize force quickly or robustly enough to meet the threat.”

Daskal and Vladeck disagree. They counter that “no examples exist of cases where Congress either could not or would not provide the necessary authority–or why, in the interim, the President’s Article II authorities, criminal law, and other existing counterterrorism authorities weren’t sufficient to meet the threat.” On the contrary, the Congress has consistently demonstrated the ability and willingness to authorize wars quite quickly (too quickly, some might say), including within three days of the 9/11 attacks, and within five days of the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964. Thus, Daskal and Vladeck conclude, if a new terrorist group “were to emerge, nothing would or should stop Congress from providing a new, narrow and specific authorization to use force.”

They continue, with emphasis:

Proposals to delegate such future—and momentous—decisions to the President lack any historical precedent, and for good reason. It is Congress, not the Executive, that is given the authority under our Constitution to declare war. An authorization to use military force…should not be an ex ante delegation to the President to make unreviewable decisions to go to war at some future date. This is something our Founding Fathers understood well. Thus, proposals to delegate such a determination to the President threaten the carefully calibrated balance of powers enmeshed within the Constitution, essentially asking Congress to surrender one of its most important functions to the Executive.

This is an important and interesting discussion, and one that should not reduce to the predictable partisanship in Washington today. Some liberal Democrats agree with conservative Republicans that the president should be given more powers; other liberals and conservatives are joined in opposition to such suggestions. This timely–indeed, overdue–assessment of the powers that exist, and will be needed in the future, to deal with terrorist threats should and will be getting more attention in the weeks and months ahead.