Maximum Orwell: Ending The War Without End, By Enabling A New War Without End... And Less Oversight

from the 60-words dept

If you haven't yet come across it, you should listen to the recent Radiolab episode entitled "60 Words." It's a bit different from the standard Radiolab fare, instead presenting a somewhat chilling look into the infamous 60 words in the AUMF -- the "Authorization to Use Military Force" that was written immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and whereby Congress basically gave the President the "authority" to use the military to go after terrorists, no matter where they lived. The Radiolab episode was done in partnership with Gregory Johnsen of Buzzfeed, who had written up a similar piece a few months earlier, "60 Words And A War Without End." It talks about the history and importance of those 60 words -- and also how the interpretation of those 60 words changed over time, in a very dangerous manner.

By now, after having followed the whole NSA debacle for quite some time, we're getting used to how words are twisted by the executive branch to mean something Congress clearly did not intend, and here the amazing thing is the story of how the Defense Department suddenly started inserting "associated forces" into its explanation of who they were targeting. You see, those short 60 words were as follows:
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 in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Note that it appears to be focused just on those who planned the September 11th attacks. But, the executive branch has conveniently reinterpreted it to mean "anyone we consider to be a terrorist" by repeatedly claiming that it applies to "associated forces." You'll note, of course, that "associated forces" does not appear anywhere in the statement, but it hasn't stopped the Pentagon from reading that into the agreement. While a judge, John Bates -- whose name you might recognize from various FISA court rulings -- questioned this obvious expansion of the AUMF, eventually he rubber stamped this broad interpretation. From there, the government has just assumed that anyone they classify as a terrorist organization is an "associated force" and can be targeted.
What was supposed to be a rather routine Senate hearing early in Obama’s second term provided a glimpse into just how expansively the administration had been interpreting the sentence at the heart of the AUMF. On May 16, 2013, the Defense Department sent a quartet of officials to the Capitol to answer questions about the AUMF and the current state of the war against al-Qaeda. In the course of their joint testimony, Michael Sheehan and Robert Taylor, who were speaking for the four, both claimed that the 2001 AUMF and its 60 words were “adequate” for the administration’s needs.

Sheehan, a balding former counterterrorism official with the New York Police Department who looked like he had forgotten to shave that morning, spoke first. The administration, he told the senators, was “comfortable” with the AUMF as it was currently structured because it didn’t “inhibit us from prosecuting the war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.”

Sen. John McCain was incredulous. Shuffling through some papers, the 76-year-old senator pulled out a copy of the AUMF and started reading. Twenty-four seconds later he finished the 60-word sentence, and then he started to lecture. “This authorization was about those who planned and orchestrated the attacks of September 2001,” McCain said, staring down toward the witness table. “Here we are, 12 years later, and you’re telling us that you don’t think it needs to be updated,” he continued. “Well, clearly it does.”
Following that, Senator Angus King finally asked about this repeated claim of "associated forces" by noting it's not anywhere in the AUMF:
“The AUMF is very limited, and you keep using the term ‘associated forces’ — you use it 13 times in your statement — that is not in the AUMF,” King said, before adding, “I assume [the AUMF] does suit you very well because you’re reading it to cover anything and everything.”
That happened a year ago, and more or less woke up a bunch of people -- including experts who didn't realize it before -- that the administration had totally reinterpreted the AUMF from a narrowly constructed, limited authorization for military intervention into one that was broad, all-encompassing, and never-ending.

Oh, and then it gets worse, because the US government refuses to identify what it believes the AUMF actually covers -- and, in fact, it has a secret, classified list of "associated forces." You may recall that, at about the same time as this hearing happened, the Chelsea Manning trial was happening -- and we pointed out that among the charges was that he was aiding the enemy... but the "enemy" was classified. We thought that was crazy. How can you be accused of aiding an enemy when the enemy itself is not named. Even worse, just the idea of having "classified" enemies raises serious questions about what sort of expansive war the government has created. It out-Orwells even Orwell.

And, of course, soon after that, President Obama talked about finally closing the door on the AUMF, but hadn't done anything to actually do that. That finally brings us to today, where Congress is finally talking about revisiting the AUMF. Unfortunately, as we've seen with the NSA as well, when some people talk about "revisiting" the AUMF -- or even when they talk about "limiting" it, the reality may be that they're looking for ways to expand and broaden it. As Adam Sewer at MSNBC notes:
But again, those who want to revisit the AUMF don’t necessarily want the Obama administration or future presidents to pursue Al-Qaeda less aggressively, they just want to make sure that aggression has the force of law behind it. Crafting legislation that appears to narrow the 2001 authorization, while in effect expanding it, would not be too difficult.
And while Senator McCain has criticized the government's interpretation of the AUMF, saying he didn't believe it gave the President authority to fight terrorism in places like Yemen and Somalia, it appears he's willing to authorize those kinds of wars anyway.
“It does not need to be repealed, but it is hard for me to understand why you would oppose a revision of the Authorization to Use Military Force in light of the dramatically changed landscape that we have in this war on Muslim extremism and al Qaeda and others.”
Perhaps the most chilling part in any of these stories comes towards the end of the Radiolab episode, right after they cover President Obama talking about ending the AUMF -- and "ending the war." From there, the President then talks about the rules for drone strikes, which we've covered here as well, in which he appears to indicate the power to do that... without the AUMF. From the Radiolab episode:
Jad Abumrad: How do you end a war when the vast amount of the people that you're calling "the enemy," haven't stopped fighting?

Benjamin Wittes: So, what he does, in the May speech, and it's extremely clever -- and, by the way, it's really well lawyered -- is he announces a set of rules, going forward, for drone strikes.

President Obama (giving the speech): America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people.

Wittes: ... that he's only going to use drone strikes when there's an imminent threat.

Abumrad: And it's well understood, by people who understand this kind of stuff, that in the Constitution and also in international law, the President is allowed to act unilaterally, in self-defense, when there is an imminent threat. Meaning, it's urgent and you can't feasibly capture that person. Ben fears that what President Obama was doing there, by stressing that word...

Obama speech: ... an imminent threat to the American people...

Abumrad: ... is that he was laying a new foundation. He was saying, 'when the AUMF ends -- and I want it to end -- I do have another way of justifying all these things.'

Wittes: ... maybe they wouldn't change.

Abumrad: So the drone strikes, and the raids would continue.

Wittes: As long as you have a capacious enough understanding of what the word "imminent" means, you might be able to continue a lot of this stuff. And then you don't have to go to Congress at all. And you can say you ended the war. And the human rights groups will cheer for you. And we'll mysteriously find that there are a whole lot of "imminent threats."

Obama speech: ... for freedom!
Right. So, while it's nice to see Congress talking about finally revisiting the AUMF, none of this may end.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 16th, 2014 @ 1:18pm

    Still applies...

    "If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land,
    it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy."

    ~James Madison

    How is it, the founding fathers said things that still so readily apply or flat our warn us of the dangers today and yet many would claim them to be antiquated, old fashioned, and out of date!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 16th, 2014 @ 1:26pm

    Re: Still applies...

    People might change, but 'the people' do not.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 16th, 2014 @ 1:40pm

    Still applies...

    The people pulling the strings took a look around and realized no one is paying attention.

    Wernher Von Braun said decades ago:

    The Communists will be the first false threat to allow money and power to flow to the Defense industry. After that, 3rd World Crazies AKA terrorists would be the go to reason for expanding the same spending. Once that grows old, Asteroids are going to happen to be headed right towards us!!! OMG we will need to give them any and all support they ask to save all mankind from such a horrible end. Once we have destroyed the potentially mankind destroying asteroids, it will turn out that Aliens will be behind the whole thing and bent on destroying us before we can break out of this system and be a real threat.

    He seemed to have missed the War on Drugs, but other than that, he has called the game plan pretty well for a decades dead genius.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Trevor, May 16th, 2014 @ 1:57pm

    Re: Still applies...

    Because the founding fathers were PAST the point of no return, and had already been to where that statement leads. They did what was necessary to change it.

    The founding fathers had first hand experience and hindsight. We're just starting with the experience. It hasn't quite set in yet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Rikuo (profile), May 16th, 2014 @ 2:09pm

    Re: Still applies...

    Given that von Braun died in 1977, I highly doubt he would have said a phrase like OMG...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Pixelation, May 16th, 2014 @ 2:36pm

    What I want to know is, who is responsible for prosecuting these fuckers and their slimy lawyers? When will the President and his men be held accountable?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), May 16th, 2014 @ 4:12pm

    Re: Still applies...

    Because they wrote the rules, and knew exactly how they might be broken.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), May 16th, 2014 @ 4:14pm


    If they thought there was a chance of that happening, would they do what they're doing? They know they're untouchable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 16th, 2014 @ 4:38pm

    America is in a never ending war with factions half a world away. To be honest, I'm not even sure who we're fighting anymore. It seems like we're at war with everyone in the Middle East where America hasn't installed a puppet government yet.

    And for what? Why are these Middle East countries of strategic importance to the United States? I'm looking at a map of the Middle East, and it seems like the US has taken over Iraq and Afghanistan. Right in the middle of those two countries sits Iran.

    So we're trying to surround Iran? For what? Maybe in order to keep the Persian Gulf waters open for oil tanker ships to sail in and out of the United Arab Emirates, who are friendly to the United States? Bush Jr. is practically a member of the royal family over there.

    The war in the Middle East must mostly be about oil, and keeping Iran in check so the oil keeps flowing. That's the only reason I can think of.

    9/11 just gave the US Government justification to run wild in the region. Along with justification to erode the US citizen's Constitution Rights, all in the name of the 'War on Terror', otherwise known as 'The Middle East Oil Wars'.

    What pisses me off the most is both the Nation Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), both state the US President has the authority to indefinitly detain US Citizins on American soil, without trial, using the military. That just reeks of oppressive dictator powers. If large protest ever break out in this country, it's a sure thing this provision will be enacted to indefinitely detain US citizens in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) camps.

    The president pinky promised that he himself, but not future presidents, will never use this provistion to detain US Citizens. If that's the case, why not explicity state in the provision that indinite detentions authorized by AUMF could never be used against American Citizens on US soil. Why is that statement missing from the AUMF? I'll tell you why, because that provision in the AUMF is the US Government's ace up it's sleeve, to quall any mass uprisings that map happen after a national, manmade, or financial disaster.

    The AUMF is unconstitional.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    silverscarcat (profile), May 16th, 2014 @ 6:41pm

    Re: Re:

    Only untouchable until some President decides to press charges against previous Presidents.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 16th, 2014 @ 7:52pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Ten days before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, at Columbia University, Kennedy said: "The high office of President has been used to foment a plot to destroy the Americanís freedom, and before I leave office I must inform the citizen of his plight."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2014 @ 1:07am

    So, did they gave any proof of those people being terrorists, or they are just putting a terrorist tag on every civilian who the cia accidentally kills?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    OrganizedThoughtCrime (profile), May 17th, 2014 @ 3:00am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Yet another reason that certain parties continue to slander him to this day.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    rawcookie (profile), May 17th, 2014 @ 8:04am

    Maybe AUMF really stands for All Ugly Mother Fuckers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 17th, 2014 @ 10:43am

    It out-Orwells even Orwell.

    We have always been at war with [redacted].

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous, May 17th, 2014 @ 12:21pm

    Re: Re: Still applies...

    I don't know about that. After all, wasn't it Buddha who said, "Life ain't nothing but b*tches and money"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2014 @ 5:39pm

    Every 'war' the government starts turns into a war with no end. Just look at the war on drugs (which brings about the war on gangs). The war on infringement. The war on terror. The war on whistleblowers. The war on protesters. The war on our civil liberties.

    Well, at least they eventually ended the war on poverty by closing the Office of Economic Opportunity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2014 @ 5:48pm


    and lets not forget the war on those market competitors that don't grease the palms of politicians the most. The war on reasonable prices. The war on free market capitalism.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2014 @ 5:50pm


    and also the war on free speech (ie: govt. established broadcasting and cableco monopolies are a government abrogation of free speech being that those monopolists get to use the power of the government to decide what speech gets broadcasted and what speech doesn't and to keep competitors from broadcasting opposing ideas over these info distribution channels).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2014 @ 6:54pm


    Also the war on our privacy. The war on net neutrality. The war on the Internet.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Pragmatic, May 20th, 2014 @ 5:55am

    Re: Re:

    Free market capitalism is an oxymoron. "The Market" is not free and never really has been. All enterprises tend towards market capture and monopoly as they grow in size. The telcos are a prime example of this.

    A fair and open market requires that neither suppliers nor consumers have an unfair advantage; in our society, suppliers are enabled to segment their consumers by geolocation or restrict them to accessing their products and services via specified business models. They are enabled via grants, tax breaks, and subsidies to drive competitors out of business by undercutting them; and if they pollute our air, water, or land, we're prevented by law from taking them to court, or even proving our cases with video, etc.

    Consumers are told they can vote with their feet, but sometimes they've got a long way to walk to get to the alternatives.

    Free market? You're kidding me, right? There has never been a free market. When the term was invented, the East India Company was practically running the planet, making the British govt. rich in the process. The Boston Tea Party was about preserving their monopoly on tea sales! Free market? Where? Show me.

    What we need is a fair and open market that works for the good of all.

    /End rant.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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