The fight against al-Qaida could continue for another 20 years, a top Pentagon official told Congress Thursday as the administration warned against any changes to the 2001 law giving the president broad authority to use military force in the war on terror.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said the Authorization for the Use of Military Force bill passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks still serves its purpose and will continue to be effective until al-Qaida is in "the ash heap of history."
"In my judgment, this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years, " Sheehan told the panel.
Many lawmakers, however, have questioned whether the military force authorization bill should be rewritten, or perhaps even thrown out, given the increased use of drone strikes in places that some say are not true war zones. President Barack Obama has pledged to be more transparent about the drone program, which has included the use of nearly 400 CIA and military drone strikes, reports the Washington Post
. But Sheehan told lawmakers that there are still no geographic boundaries on future drone use, noting that they would continue to take place anywhere that al-Qaida or other terrorist groups are considered a threat to U.S. national security interests.
Sen. John McCain called Sheehan's testimony on drone policy and the use of force military force bill "disturbing."
"Here we are, 12 years later, and you . . . come before us and tell us that you don’t think [the use of force law] needs to be updated. Well, clearly it does," said the Arizona Republican.
Maine Sen. Angus King said he was also surprised by Defense Department contention the law is still needed and should not undergo any changes to rein in the president's authority.
"This is the most astounding and most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I've been to since I've been here, King, an independent said, "You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution today," King told four senior U.S. military officials who also testified.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, however, disagreed with McCain and King. The South Carolina Republican said he thinks the law is working just fine.
According to the Huffington Post, the senators were also told at the hearing that the administration believes the law gives the president the authority to put "boots on the ground" in places like Yemen, the Congo, even Syria if necessary, so long as the action is taken against an al-Qaida affiliated group.
That comment drew a response from Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine, who said it was especially disturbing that troops could eventually be used in Syria.
"The testimony I hear today suggests the administration believes that they would have the authority to do that," Kaine said. "But I don't want us to walk out of the room leaving an impression that members of Congress also share the understanding that that would be acceptable."
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