Early this spring—in a five-page spread headlined “So, Who Can We Kill?”—Time (4/1/13) reported on pressures putting “Obama and his drone war on the defensive.” Notably, much of the article focused on the Authorization for Use of Military Force that zipped through Congress three days after 9/11. During more than a decade of Washington’s wars, AUMF has rarely undergone scrutiny from major media outlets.
Very few mainstream U.S. journalists offered anything but praise when Congress passed the resolution, which declared that
the president is authorized 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.
As for the lone member of Congress who cast a “no” vote on AUMF, Rep. Barbara Lee (D.-Calif.), few reporters or pundits seemed to grasp her plea on the House floor that day: “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Nearly a dozen years later, Lee went unmentioned in the recent Time article, which cited AUMF as “the legal basis for Obama’s targeted-killing operations.”
The magazine did provide space for former Rep. Jane Harman (D.-Calif.) to say about AUMF: “I believe most everybody thought—certainly I thought—it was limited in time and space.” Yet plenty of evidence, ignored by Time, refutes such claims. For instance, soon after passage of AUMF, in a Los Angeles speech (1/14/02; quoted in Nancy Snow, Information War), Lee pointed out that Congress had voted “to give almost unlimited authority to the president to pursue the perpetrators of September 11 and any of their supporters anywhere”—and that “the scope was global, the time frame infinite.”
Like some other prominent media outlets in recent months (Wall Street Journal, 12/7/12; ProPublica, 2/6/13; Washington Post, 3/6/13; Wired, 3/7/13), Time suggested that Congress might want to pass “a renewed AUMF more clearly stating the mission, and enemy, in the antiterrorism war for the post-Afghanistan era.” The reportage was matter-of-fact: “A new AUMF would clarify, both legally and politically, whom we should be killing and why.”
Missing from Time’s coverage was any idea that an end to the “war on terror” might be an option. Also left unmentioned was Lee’s current bill (H.R. 198) to repeal AUMF on the grounds that it
has been used to justify a broad and open-ended authorization for the use of military force and such an interpretation is inconsistent with the authority of Congress to declare war and make all laws for executing powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States.
A New York Times editorial (3/10/13) urged repeal while seeming to reaffirm the wisdom of approving AUMF in the first place:
It was enacted with good intentions—to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Afghanistan and go after Al-Qaeda and the Taliban rulers who sheltered and aided the terrorists who had attacked the United States. But over time, that resolution became warped into something else: the basis for a vast overreaching of power by one president, Mr. Bush, and less outrageous but still dangerous policies by another, Barack Obama.
Even now, the Times editorial board cannot bring itself to acknowledge that the AUMF was tragically wrong from the outset.
With the scope of U.S. warfare continuing to widen under purported AUMF authorization, the Washington Post (3/6/13) reported, “Counterterrorism officials said deliberations over whom to put on the list for drone strikes routinely start with the question of whether a proposed target is ‘AUMF-able.’” Apparently, this spring’s upsurge of media coverage re-evaluating AUMF has been generated less by independent-minded journalistic initiatives than by high-ranking official concerns that future U.S. warfare will need more room to expand.
Like a snake bursting its skin, the state of perpetual war may shed AUMF. “Administration officials acknowledged that they could be forced to seek new legal cover if the president decides that strikes are necessary against nascent groups that don’t have direct Al-Qaeda links,” the Post wrote. “Some outside legal experts said that step is all but inevitable because the authorization has already been stretched to the limit of its intended scope.”
Although journalists report that high-level Washington is wrestling with whether the AUMF has outgrown its usefulness, few mention that AUMF is apparently moot for the portion of drone strikes being run by the CIA rather than the Defense Department—those targeting Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. While AUMF authorizes military force, CIA killings are not “military” for legal purposes (Empty Wheel, 3/9/13). This seldom-mentioned but critical issue may be behind a scenario for consolidating U.S. drone strikes under the Pentagon’s roof (Daily Beast, 3/19/13).
While the Obama administration considers how to reorganize its war efforts, we should ask why the U.S. media establishment took more than a decade to begin asking basic questions about the Authorization for Use of Military Force—and why the underlying premises of perpetual war continue to elude concerted journalistic scrutiny.
The consequences of such media evasions have persisted in tandem with Washington’s political machinations. Rather than handling 9/11 as a crime committed by criminals, the “war on terror” under the AUMF umbrella propelled U.S. military actions that have killed hundreds of thousands in at least six countries.
Results back home have been directly devastating for many thousands of American families, losing loved ones and coping with post-warfare injuries to bodies, minds and spirits. The Bill of Rights also took debilitating hits, as two administrations normalized the undermining of basic civil liberties such as habeas corpus, due process and the right to privacy.
Meanwhile, despite huge media cover-age of the nation’s economic woes, little ink or air time has been devoted to the real financial costs of making war in Iraq and Afghanistan, now estimated by Harvard researcher Linda Bilmes at somewhere between $4 trillion and $6 trillion (Inter Press Service, 3/30/13).
None of which has satiated the mass media enthusiasm for questions like “So, Who Can We Kill?” n
Norman Solomon, a FAIR associate, is founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of RootsAction.org. His books include War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death (Wiley).