The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks targeted the symbolic centers of American industry and security, killing 2,977 people. Following the attacks, Congress passed a series of laws, reorganizing and empowering intelligence agencies and the military in order to combat the threat from terrorism. Many of these measures have served as the foundation of U.S. foreign and domestic policy for the last fifteen years and are still in place today.
In particular, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) has been interpreted—many experts say—far beyond its original scope, serving as the justification for almost two decades of counterterrorism policy.
THE 2001 AUMF
Though the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the White House needs Congress’ permission to use military force abroad for any operation lasting longer than three months. Lawmakers can either declare war, giving the president broad powers, or they can pass a law authorizing a narrower scope of military operations. AUMF laws serve as that authorization, and they typically restrict military action to specific locations and time frames.
The 2001 AUMF is unusual in its lack of limitations.The bill was drafted in the chaotic hours after the 9/11 attacks, and it passed three days later, with just a single clause of legislation:
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.
This law has been used to justify some of the most significant national security policy and operations since 9/11: the war in Afghanistan; the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA); drone strikes in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen; and airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State.