President Needs Congress’ Authorization to Combat ISIL; American University Professor’s New Book Explains Why 2001 AUMF Is Invalid

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President Obama claims the 2001 AUMF applies to ISIL, a group that does not fit the criterion set by the statute itself. “If allowed, the 2001 AUMF threatens to become an open-ended, handing-over-of-war authority from Congress for the president to use against any terrorist group he may deem dangerous,” says American University School of International Service associate professor Shoon Murray, author of the new book The Terror Authorization: The History and Politics of the 2001 AUMF.

Instead of stepping up to pass an authorization specific to ISIL and sunsetting the 2001 AUMF, Congress has created a dangerous ‘new normal.’

Thirteen years after Congress passed the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (2001 AUMF) immediately post-9/11, it has become one of the most powerful, broadly used tools of authority for a sitting president to act without congressional approval—used to justify warrantless NSA domestic surveillance, indefinite detentions in Guantanamo Bay, and the use of armed drones even in countries with which the US is not at war. Now President Obama claims the AUMF applies to a group that does not fit the criterion set by the statute itself. “If allowed, the 2001 AUMF threatens to become an open-ended, handing-over-of-war authority from Congress for the president to use against any terrorist group he may deem dangerous,” says American University School of International Service associate professor Shoon Murray, author of the new book The Terror Authorization: The History and Politics of the 2001 AUMF.

Prof. Murray examines the pitfalls of letting the 2001 AUMF live much beyond the withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan later this year. She strongly argues for the 2001 AUMF to be sunsetted and eventually repealed and for Congress to newly authorize any military action for future adventures, reasserting its constitutional authority of checks and balances. Prof. Murray discussed her research in a recent Q&A.

In the face of new threats from ISIL, President Obama is relying on inherent powers and his belief that he has the authority under the 2001 AUMF (and the 2002 AUMF on Iraq) to respond with force, Murray recently stated in a television interview on the eve of Obama’s authorizing combat missions to combat ISIL in Syria. If left in place, the 2001 AUMF will be relied upon by Obama’s successors to the Oval Office says Murray. “Instead of stepping up to pass an authorization specific to ISIL and sunsetting the 2001 AUMF, Congress has created a dangerous ‘new normal.’”

Murray argues that Congress built in one limit in the 2001 AUMF, “there had to be a nexus with the 9/11 attacks.” The statute authorizes the president to use military force only 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 …” ISIL is not al Qaeda or a co-belligerent fighting with al Qaeda but a new threat not contemplated in the 2001 AUMF. Therefore, it requires separate authority for President Obama to act, says Murray.

When the combat mission in Afghanistan ends, the authority should expire. However, Murray identifies the powerful obstacles standing in the way of repealing the 2001 AUMF:

  •     Powerful organization interests to keep the status quo,
  •     The irrational and common reactions to risk,
  •     Psychological tendencies; and,
  •     Built-in political incentives.

Nevertheless, Murray is a proponent of fighting inertia rather than suffering the real costs of the current disequilibrium between Congress and the Executive branch. Prof. Murray can explain that President Obama was once an advocate of repealing the authority too.

American University is a leader in global education, enrolling a diverse student body from throughout the United States and nearly 140 countries. Located in Washington, D.C., the university provides opportunities for academic excellence, public service, and internships in the nation’s capital and around the world. AU’s School of International Service (SIS) is the nation’s largest international affairs school, where Prof. Murray is the immediate past Director of the U.S. Foreign Policy and National Security Program.

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