Who exactly is the enemy in the continuing U.S. war against terrorism?
In some cases, the answer is: It's a secret.
When the United States began its war against
That resolution, called the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, remains the legal underpinning for most counter-terrorist operations today.
Since 2001, however, the target list has grown. Al Qaeda offshoots have sprung up in
Nevertheless, both the Bush and
In many cases, that's a reasonably clear standard. When Al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate put a terrorist with explosives in his underwear on a flight to Detroit, the target was plainly the U.S.
But other cases are more ambiguous. Does the Shabab militia in Somalia qualify? They are Islamic terrorists and a danger to East Africa, but they pose little threat to the United States. Does Ansar al Sharia, the group that attacked a U.S. mission in Libya last year but has loose ties to Al Qaeda, fit in? What about Al Nusra Front in Syria, a group born as part of the uprising against
All are violent extremists who might gladly kill Americans given the opportunity. But Congress certainly didn't have them in mind when it approved the AUMF.
"None of us, not one who voted for it, could have envisioned we were voting for the longest war in American history, or that we were about to give future presidents the authority to fight terrorism as far-flung as Yemen and Somalia," Sen.
So Congress is, belatedly, pondering whether the 12-year-old law needs to be revised. For some, like Durbin, the problem is that the resolution has turned into a blank check. For others, such as Sen.
At a stormy hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Sen.
That answer — "trust us," in effect — didn't mollify Levin. He asked again for a list.
"I'm not sure there is a list per se," Sheehan replied. But he promised to put one together.
I asked both the committee and the Pentagon this week whether the list could be publicly released. Neither gave a clear reply. If there is an enemies list, it is still secret.
If Congress does revise the AUMF, it's unlikely to make much of a practical difference in the way the United States fights terrorists. Most members of Congress still support drone strikes against known terrorists, even U.S. citizens like Anwar Awlaki, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. They'd just like to be asked for permission before the war expands to new countries, such as Mali, where the United States aided French forces earlier this year.
The Constitution and international law give the president the power to act in self-defense against any imminent threat, even without an AUMF. And, as University of Texas law professor Robert M. Chesney notes, the Obama administration has already interpreted "imminent threat" to mean something closer to any "continuous threat," not just attacks that are about to happen.
So when President Obama endorsed the idea of revising the AUMF in his speech on counter-terrorism last month, he wasn't giving up much. Congress was already looking at the issue.
As Obama has made clear in Afghanistan and Syria, he's looking for ways to get out of old wars, not into new ones. The effect, if any, will mostly be to limit the freedom of Obama's successor to use force.
But there is one thing the incumbent president can do: He can tell his Pentagon to be clearer and less secretive about the criteria it uses to decide which terrorists merit the application of