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Congress rethinks 9/11 law on military force

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Congress is rethinking the broad authority it gave presidents to wage a war on terror after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in light of how President Barack Obama has used the power to target suspected terrorists with lethal drone strikes.

Senior Defense Department officials insisted Thursday that the law should remain unchanged as the nation remains in armed conflict with al-Qaida and its affiliates. But Republicans and Democrats fear that they have given the president unrestricted power to use military force worldwide.

“This authority ... has grown way out of proportion and is no longer applicable to the conditions that prevailed, that motivated the United States Congress to pass the authorization for the use of military force that we did in 2001,” Sen. John McCain, an opposition Republican, said during a Senate hearing. He told Pentagon officials that “basically you've got carte blanche as to what you are doing throughout the world.”

When McCain asked whether the law gives the administration the authority to use lethal force against al-Qaida associates if they are identified in Mali, Libya and Syria, the Pentagon's acting general counsel, Robert Taylor, said the United States has the authority.

Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that for the war against al-Qaida, the Taliban and other terrorist groups, the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force “serves its purpose.”

“Ultimately (al-Qaida) will end up on the ash heap of history, as with other groups ... but that day, unfortunately, is a long way off,” Sheehan said.

Emerging threats beyond the borders of Afghanistan, and the president's use of unmanned drone strikes, have raised questions about the relevance of a law nearly 12 years later.

Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, summed up the frustration of many in Congress who backed the law in 2001 but now wonder whether they went too far.

“I don't believe many, if any, of us believed when we voted for that — and I did vote for it — that we were voting for the longest war in the history of the United States and putting a stamp of approval on a war policy against terrorism that, 10 years-plus later, we're still using,” Durbin said.

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