WASHINGTON – The Trump administration told Congress on Wednesday it has sufficient legal authority to use military force against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria based on the 2001 law to counter al-Qaida approved shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis informed them during a closed-door briefing that they would be open to an updated authorization provided the measure doesn't impose tactically unwise restrictions or infringe on the president's constitutional powers as commander in chief.
"They were very open to the idea of working on an authorization, not because they feel like they legally have to have it, but they think for the mission itself it would be good to have Congress engaged in that way," said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who is sponsoring legislation to install a new war authority for operations against the Islamic State group, al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Kaine said Mattis told committee members that "if you do an authorization now, you express a congressional resolve, which is really the American public's resolve" that Congress and the administration are on the same page.
Ahead of the briefing by Tillerson and Mattis, the State Department delivered a letter to committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that said the 2001 law grants the military the authority to defend U.S. and allied forces fighting against Islamic State militants. The administration said the authority extends to the fight against al-Qaida and associated forces, including the Islamic State group.
"This legal authority includes the 2001 Authorization for the Use Military Forces which authorizes the use of military force against these groups," said the letter signed by Charles Faulkner of the department's legislative affairs office. "Accordingly, the administration is not seeking revisions to the 2001 AUMF or additional authorization to use force."
Republicans and Democrats have raised questions about whether the 2001 law should be revised. But finding common ground is much harder than it sounds. Congress, nearly 16 years after approving the first authorization, has failed to pass another due to disagreements over whether to impose time restrictions or allow ground troops.
Corker stressed that Tillerson and Mattis don't want the 2001 war authorization repealed until a new one is in place.
The letter to Congress reflected the administration's effort to affirm it's on solid legal footing as long as it is fighting Islamic State extremists in the volatile Middle East, even as the administration prepares for post-Islamic State operations in which the extremists are mostly vanquished and the focus turns to the longer term.
The Obama administration also argued the law passed after Sept. 11 to fight al-Qaida applied to the current effort in Iraq and Syria because it said the U.S. could go after al-Qaida affiliates. These days, al-Qaida's offshoot in Syria is distinct from the Islamic State — and in fact has been fighting the group. But both the Obama and Trump administrations have argued they're similar enough to both be fair game under the 2001 law.
But that argument, which critics have said stretches the post-9/11 law too far, becomes even less credible once the Islamic State is largely eliminated and the primary U.S. focus in Syria and Iraq moves beyond Trump's goal of defeating the group.
The liberation of Mosul, the group's last urban stronghold in Iraq, and the impending fall of Raqqa, the de facto capital in Syria, have been seen as powerful indicators that the group may be nearing defeat.
Anticipating the defeat of IS, the administration is discussing with Congress the potential need for a post-Islamic State law to authorize U.S. activities to stabilize Syria and keep other extremist groups or Iran-backed militias from filling the vacuum of power.
If the U.S. decided to issue a new authorization, for example, it could potentially facilitate temporarily sending in more troops to help restore order and normalcy on the ground, said a senior U.S. official, who wasn't authorized to discuss the deliberations publicly and requested anonymity.
Tillerson, speaking to reporters this week, argued the U.S. didn't plan to pull out abruptly and completely once the Islamic State is defeated, but also had no plans to embark on the kind of nation-building in the Middle East for which President George W. Bush's administration was criticized.
He said in areas liberated from the Islamic State, the U.S. has sought to move in quickly to restore "fundamental needs" that allow residents to move back to their homes: electricity, water and sewage.
"That's where we stop," Tillerson said. "We get the essentials in place. We're not there to rebuild their communities. That's for them to do and that's for the international community to marshal the resources to allow them to do that."
Contact Richard Lardner on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rplardner