White House Seeks New Legal Framework for Strikes on Islamic State

Administration to Push for Legislation Authorizing Military Force Against Militant Group in Iraq and Syria.

A pair of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighters fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria in a September 2014 photo released by the U.S. Air Force. (Associated Press)

A pair of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagle fighters fly over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria in a September 2014 photo released by the U.S. Air Force. (Associated Press)

The White House is pursuing a two-stage plan for revamping the legal architecture used by the government to conduct aerial warfare against Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq and around the world, according to officials.

As a first step, the Obama administration is pushing for new legislation that narrowly authorizes military force against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

That resolution, which administration officials plan to seek during the lame-duck Congress this year, would lead to a broader measure providing a legal basis for all U.S. counterterrorism operations—across the Middle East and North Africa—before President Barack Obama leaves office, according to senior administration officials.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, is set to brief congressional leaders on Friday during Mr. Obama’s White House meeting with congressional leaders. Afterward, the president is expected to begin discussions with lawmakers over what he wants to see in the new authorization.

In the three-month bombing campaign against Islamic State, the administration has had to rely on legal justifications under the 2001 authorization for the use of military force, known as AUMF, which Congress passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Military officials said this week they need more flexibility to execute the current strategy. Under the existing authorization, military officials must engage in lengthy discussions with lawyers to ensure strikes are legitimate, officials say, making the process of approving targets too cumbersome and time-consuming.

Under the administration’s two-stage strategy, there would temporarily be two separate authorizations: one for the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and a second—the 2001 AUMF— covering all other counterterrorism operations.

A separate 2002 AUMF enacted for the U.S. invasion of Iraq also remains on the books.

“The goal ultimately is to replace the whole thing,” a senior administration official said.

A senior military officer said that the 2001-era threats posed by al Qaeda have largely receded, replaced by dangers from various groups with a range of ties to the remnants of Osama bin Laden ’s inner circle and slightly different ideological agendas.

A new authorization, officials said, needs to reflect the changing threat.

“No one is trying to do something outside the AUMF or the law,” a senior defense official said. “But this is a dynamic situation. This is not the same al Qaeda we started fighting more than a decade ago.”

Still, a debate over a new overall authorization will be difficult, opening potential debates not just over the deployment of U.S. troops but also over the use of drones in counterterrorism operations, the indefinite detention of terror suspects and the future of Guantanamo Bay.

The Republican victory in Tuesday’s elections opened a window for the administration to seek a new congressional law authorizing the U.S. military to conduct strikes against Islamic State militants.

Key Democrats supporting a new resolution, such as Sen. Tim Kaine (D., Va.), have pressed for new authorization, but one that includes restrictions that the administration isn’t comfortable with, like a time limit on military action.

Mr. Obama said on Wednesday that his administration would offer a draft authorization but would also listen and weigh the proposals from lawmakers. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he would begin hearings on a new authorization next week.

Source: WASHINGTON— By Julian E. Barnes And Carol E. Lee – Nov. 7, 2014 (The Wall Street Journal)

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