Ten years ago this Sunday, Sept. 18, the United States set itself on a destructive course. That was the day President Bush signed the bill that Congress had just passed called the Authorization for Use of Military Force. Ten years later, America’s use of military force is still going strong, with wars from Afghanistan to Pakistan, from Iraq to Yemen, and from Libya to the Horn of Africa. Under this law, the president has unlimited power to use force against anyone in the world — that’s any nation, organization, person, associated forces and so forth who the president determines was in any way involved in the attacks of 9/11. There’s no geographical limit. And there’s no time limit.
The president has that power forever. He (or someday she) can try to use it to support an entire domestic spying initiative contrary to established law, as we first learned in 2005. That’s when it became known that Bush was authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to break the law that required warrants for the monitoring of the phone calls and e-mails of individuals and organizations inside the United States. At the time, it was a scandal for the NSA to be searching for evidence of terrorist activity minus the court-approved warrants required for domestic spying under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. Now, thanks to congressional amendments to the law in 2008, that previously unlawful activity has legal backing.
Like Bush before him, President Obama claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force gives him the right not only to make war and kill people, but also to capture anyone he suspects of terrorism anywhere in the world and imprison them forever without trial. Similarly, the Obama administration uses the authorization to defend its policy of using targeted killings against suspects in the so-called war on terror even if they are way outside a war zone — in addition to American citizens, such as in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki. Obama ran for president on his record as a constitutional law professor and promised to return transparency and lawfulness to America’s governing structures. Now, unforgivably, he is embracing summary executions. The Authorization for Use of Military Force was always an invitation to presidential abuse of power. We should withdraw it right away.
Michael Ratner is president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.