Sunsetting the War on Terror — Or Not

This week marks the 22nd anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, the infamous prison on the island of Cuba designed to hold detainees from this country’s Global War on Terror. It’s an anniversary that’s likely to go unnoticed, since these days you rarely hear about the war on terror — and for good reason. After all, that response to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, as defined over the course of three presidential administrations, has officially ended in a cascade of silence. Yes, international terrorism and the threat of such groups persist, but the narrative of American policy as a response to 9/11 seems to have faded away. Two and a half years ago, the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from the 20-year-long Afghan War proved to be a last gasp (followed the next summer by the killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri, successor as al-Qaeda’s leader after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011).

But Guantánamo, a prison that, from its founding, has violated U.S. codes of due process, fair treatment, and the promise of justice writ large isn’t the only unnerving legacy of the “war” on terror that still persists. If indefinite detention at Guantánamo was a key pillar of that war, defying longstanding American laws and norms, it was just one of the steps beyond those norms that still persist today.

In the days, weeks, and even years following the attacks of September 11th, the U.S. government took action to create new powers in the name of keeping the nation safe. Two of them, more than two decades after those attacks, are now rife with calls for change. Congress created the first just a week after 9/11 (with but a single no vote). It authorized unchecked and unending presidentially driven war powers that could be used without specified geographical limits — and, strangely enough, that power still remains in place, despite recent congressional efforts to curtail its authority. The second, the expansive use of secret surveillance powers on Americans, is currently under heated debate.

War Powers

The very first new authority created in the name of the war on terror was the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, passed by Congress one week after the 9/11 attacks. It gave the president the power “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, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”

Unlike past declarations of war or authorizations for war in American history, it was staggeringly vague. It named no actual enemy or geographical locations. It made no reference to what conditions would end the hostilities and the power of that authorization. It was in essence “a blank check” for presidential war powers, as Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA), the single member of Congress to vote no on its passage, warned at the time and has reiterated over the years.

It was also a game-changing authorization. Not only did it lack specifics, but it stripped Congress of its constitutionally authorized power to declare war. In the war on terror, Congress would defer to the president who could decide on his own when and where to launch attacks.

Over the course of the last two-plus decades, that 2001 AUMF has been used repeatedly to do exactly what Barbara Lee feared — namely, broaden the president’s power to commit acts of war against not just the terrorist groups who conspired in the 9/11 attacks, but groups in countries far and wide. According to the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute, as of 2021, it had been used in at least 22 countries, including Afghanistan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Niger, Pakistan, the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen.

Twenty-two-and-a-half years later, in April 2023, Congressman Gregory Meeks, (D-NY), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, acknowledged that the 2001 AUMF had indeed become, in the words of fellow Democrat Annie Kuster (D-NH), “a blank check for presidents from both parties to wage war around the world.”

There have been calls for the repeal of that AUMF over the years, including from — you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn — Representative Lee (repeatedly). This past fall, several such bills were introduced in both the House and Senate, including a bipartisan version by Senator Rand Paul (R-KY).

In the spring of 2023, Representative Meeks submitted his bill to replace the 2001 AUMF with a new one. In doing so, he sought to reestablish Congress’s constitutionally granted power to declare war, emphasized the statutory obligation of the president to brief Congress after launching any attack, and added that the president must brief Congress on a regular basis as to the uses of the AUMF.

In addition, he inserted language aimed at curtailing the Act’s expansiveness, including a requirement that the enemies to whom it could be applied be specifically named. He suggested three: the original al-Qaeda; the Islamic State Khorasan, based in Afghanistan and known as IS-K; and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Moreover, his bill called for an annual reconsideration of those enemies and added provisions designed to end the president’s right to authorize the AUMF’s use for new groups by claiming they were just extensions of, or forces associated with, the already named groups. Furthermore, his bill prohibited its use against any unnamed enemy, “whether or not the entity is involved in an armed conflict against a force of a United States ally or partner or is an affiliate, associated force, or successor entity of an entity described in such subsection.”

To further constrain the broadness of that 2001 authorization, Meeks included a sunset clause at the end of four years unless it was reauthorized by Congress.

In a world where wars have broken out in Ukraine and now the Middle East, and where additional hostilities are simmering when it comes to the U.S., Iran, China, and Russia, such language would ensure that a separate congressional declaration of war would have to be approved for any enemy the U.S. decided to attack.

In these many ways, the new version of the AUMF would rein in the aberration of those war powers that came into being in the aftermath of 9/11.

And yet the time to redesign the authority of presidential war powers, as created more than 22 years ago by the war on terror, has still not arrived. Meeks’s bill, like Rand Paul’s, gained remarkably little traction. Likewise, a bill from those relatively few congressional representatives calling for a full repeal of that AUMF rather than a replacement of it failed to make it to a vote.

Surveillance

In addition to indefinite detention at Guantánamo and the authorization of endless, expansive war-making, ever more expansive intelligence collection, at home as well as abroad, has been a foundational pillar of the war on terror — and, like the AUMF, bringing it under some control has been mired in debate and controversy in recent months. In 2023, some members of Congress tried to put limits on part of a controversial law, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Amendments Act, passed in the summer of 2008 in the waning months of George W. Bush’s presidency. It authorized the collection and sharing of foreign intelligence for the purpose of deterring national security threats.

The problem was not the stated purpose of Section 702 — to acquire information on foreigners abroad who might pose a threat to the United States — but the domestic uses to which it’s been put. The act allows foreigners abroad to be surveilled without a warrant. But since its inception, it’s also been used for warrantless investigations of Americans whose communications have been caught up in sweeping searches of the communications of foreigners — investigations that have become known as “back-door searches.”

Constitutional scholars and civil liberties advocates have fought against Section 702 from its inception, arguing that such searches violate the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures without a warrant based on probable cause of criminal activity. As Elizabeth Gotein of the Brennan Center for Justice explains, “Section 702 lets the government collect the communications of non-Americans located abroad without a warrant. But because Americans talk to people outside the country, the surveillance inevitably sweeps in our private phone calls, emails, and text messages, too — information that the government would normally need a warrant to access.”

In addition, experts note that, over time, the broad authority to collect the communications of Americans has been abused in alarming ways by the authorities. Gotein points out that 702-based warrantless searches have scrutinized the “communications of Black Lives Matter protesters, members of Congress, a local political party, a state court judge, journalists, and in one case, more than 19,000 contributors to a congressional campaign.” For their part, intelligence officials seeking a continuation of Section 702 point out that recent reforms have led to more responsible use of the authority.

Now, for the third time since its passage, Section 702 is up for renewal. December 31, 2023, was the legal deadline for a vote on it. Unlike the two prior times, however, the renewal date came and went without a vote. Instead, substantial opposition by legal experts and others led to several competing bills calling for Section 702’s reform.

One of the proposed bills, the Government Surveillance Reform Act, introduced by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, as well as representatives Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) in the House, proposed that a warrant requirement be added to the search requirements when looking at the location data of Americans, web browsing and search records, vehicle data, and the like. In Lee’s version, any queries about the communications collected in a 702 search would, in accordance with the Fourth Amendment, require a warrant for material involving Americans. The new bill would amount, in Gotein’s words, to closing “the backdoor search loophole.”

The Biden administration has, however, taken a notably aggressive stance against changes to the law, especially when it comes to the introduction of the warrant requirement. Numerous high-ranking officials have spoken out publicly, insisting that the warrant requirement would imperil their ability to keep the nation safe. In his written testimony before Congress, FBI Director Chris Wray insisted that it was “an essential tool” in the counterterrorism toolbox. In fact, he told Congress, it was potentially “the critical link that allows us to identify the intended target or build out the network of attackers so we can stop them before they strike and kill Americans.” Andrew McCabe, acting director of the FBI after Donald Trump fired Director Jim Comey, put it even more starkly in a podcast devoted to the issue, labeling Section 702 “arguably the most significant national security tool in the intelligence community.” He then insisted that the requirement for a warrant was “completely unworkable.”

So fraught was the congressional loggerhead over Section 702 that the deadline for a decision proved unworkable. Instead, Congress inserted an extension to mid-April 2024 in this year’s defense spending bill, signed into law by President Biden three days before Christmas.

It’s likely that, as with the 2001 AUMF, the attempt to change Section 702 will fail. Powers once given, it seems, only prove ever harder to relinquish and, all too sadly, the overreach engendered by the war on terror has by now become an accepted part of the American (and congressional) way of life.

Guantánamo

And then there’s the most glaring symbol of the never-ending, often extralegal legacy of the war on terror, the continued existence of that grim prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Twenty-two years ago, the Bush administration set up that offshore detention facility for war-on-terror detainees, placing it beyond the reach of military, federal, or international law. Since then, on numerous occasions, new protections for the rights of prisoners there have been put into place, but none of them have addressed one fundamental wrong — namely, the decision that the federal court system was incapable of prosecuting those accused of engaging in terrorism against the United States, including those who conspired in the 9/11 attacks.

Despite candidate Biden’s assertion that, unlike Donald Trump, he would support the closure of Guantánamo, his appointment of a special representative to oversee the transfer of its prisoners to federal prisons, and the actual transfer of 10 detainees, substantial efforts to finally shut down the prison have been noticeably absent. Once a facility that held 780 men captured in the war on terror, it now holds 30 individuals, 16 of whom have been cleared for transfer elsewhere, pending appropriate security arrangements. Another 10 are scheduled for trial by military commissions but their trials are not expected to begin anytime soon.

Whether it’s an endlessly expansive authorization for eternally conducting war around the world, the redefinition of surveillance powers to include Americans under the guise of a foreign threat, or the seemingly lackadaisical acceptance of Guantánamo as an institution, there is certainly one lasting lesson from the war on terror. Once powers previously outlawed or at least restrained in the name of fair, just, and responsible laws and norms become codified and implemented, the road back to normalcy is tantamount to impossible.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that wiser heads will prevail in the days to come. It is, however, a terrifyingly fragile approach, given the outlook for the 2024 election.

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