Barbara Lee’s Long War on the War on Terror

For 16 years, Lee has been trying to repeal the broad and dangerous post-9/11 war authorization. Is she finally winning?

US Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Rep. Barbara Lee speaks in 2002 in Oakland, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The House Appropriations Committee’s voice vote on June 29, to approve an amendment repealing the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, came as a surprise to congressional leaders; reporters on Capitol Hill; and the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Barbara Lee of California. “Whoa,” Lee tweeted just after the vote, sharing a photo of the amendment, which was to be added to a defense appropriations bill.

This was a big deal. The AUMF is the controversial legal authority under which most U.S. counterterrorism activities are conducted. Lee has been on a mission to repeal it since Sept. 14, 2001, when she cast the one and only vote in Congress against the original authorization.

That vote came as a surprise too. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lee knew that most members of Congress, even those who had misgivings about the authorization, would vote for it, but she assumed at least a few would join her in dissent. As she writes in her memoir, “The bells rang, votes were cast, and the board was full of green lights. There was only one red one. I had no idea I would be the only one. Yikes.”

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In the 16 years that followed, Lee has sponsored numerous bills and motions intended to overturn the authorization, to no avail. The vote in June, the first time a congressional committee had passed an AUMF repeal, showed that she’s finally no longer alone in believing that the authorization she describes as a “blank check” is no good. In the end, the House Rules Committee stripped Lee’s amendment out of the bill, arguing that it was not the appropriate place for such a measure. But the bipartisan committee vote in support of Lee’s amendment is a dramatic sign that there’s movement. “I’ve been working this for a while,” Lee told me in her office last week. “This just adds more fuel to the fire.”

History has vindicated many of Lee’s concerns about the AUMF: It has, as she warned, dramatically expanded the president’s power to use military force, reduced congressional oversight, and vastly grown the U.S. military footprint around the world with no end in sight to the escalation. These concerns are even more pressing today, under a president with little respect for the rule of law or constitutional norms. Lee was once the only voice in Congress raising these concerns against overwhelming opposition. That’s certainly not the case today, with growing bipartisan concern that the AUMF is out of date. Is Barbara Lee finally winning?

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Running slight more than 300 words, most of it preamble, the AUMF has its power in its simplicity. The key portion states:

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.

Though widely understood at the time as authorizing military action against al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban regime that was harboring it, the measure includes no time or geographic distinctions, and three presidential administrations have taken full advantage of that ambiguity. A 2016 Congressional Research Service report found that the AUMF’s authority had been invoked 37 times for operations in 14 countries. These included the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the detention program at Guantanamo Bay, and lesser-known operations in countries such as the Philippines, Georgia, and Djibouti. The authorization has also been interpreted as permitting action against groups associated with al-Qaida, including some—such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab—that didn’t exist in 2001. In the ongoing campaign against ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the AUMF is being used to justify attacks on a group that is itself actively fighting against al-Qaida.

Lee, to her credit, saw this coming, warning on the floor of the House just a few days after the towers fell that “we must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.” She compared the AUMF with the 1964 Tonkin Gulf resolution that preceded years of conflict in Vietnam, and she urged Congress not to abandon “its own constitutional responsibilities.”

“I knew then that it was too broad,” she says today. “You don’t give any president that kind of authority.”

Like most of us, Lee remembers those days as chaotic and emotional. Her own chief of staff was in mourning for a cousin who had been a passenger on Flight 93, the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. In her book, she recalls fellow members of Congress expressing their own misgivings to her about the AUMF or lamenting that they couldn’t join her no vote since their own districts were not as liberal as the Bay Area Democratic stronghold she represents. Other colleagues, such as John Lewis and Nancy Pelosi, urged her to change her vote, assuming that it would doom her chances for re-election.

Lee credits her background as a clinical social worker for her decision to act on her misgivings about the authorization, despite the pressure. “As a psychiatric social worker I knew, this is not how you come up with anything that makes sense,” she said. “I knew it was an emotional moment. The first rule of psychotherapy 101 is that you don’t make decisions where you’re emotional or angry. You wait and think it through. You don’t just respond when you’re in that kind of emotional state.”

Lee says her views on matters of war and peace were also shaped by her childhood, growing up in El Paso, Texas, as the daughter of an Army officer. “I had heard war stories growing up. I knew what a just war was versus not. We talked a lot about that.”

While she was walking back to her office just after her 2001 vote, she says her father called to her to say, “You did the right thing. Do not send these kids into harm’s way until you know what the heck is going on.”

Not everyone was so understanding. Editorials denounced Lee as un-American and unpatriotic. The hate mail, much of it explicitly racist, and death threats started pouring into her office immediately. Capitol Police officers followed her for weeks afterward to provide protection. Though she did win re-election, her colleagues were right that it would be a tough fight: One of her opponents’ websites featured a photo of a smiling Lee in front of the burning World Trade Center towers.

Lee’s political background made it easier for opponents to paint her as a radical, out-of-touch leftist: She worked with the Black Panther Party on social programs in the Bay Area in the 1970s, entered electoral politics on Shirley Chisholm’s pioneering 1972 presidential campaign, and had one of the most liberal voting records in the House after she was first elected in 1998. But she says the majority of the letters and calls she received were positive, and public opinion shifted as George W. Bush’s ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq grew more unpopular. Nonetheless, despite growing concerns about the legality of the war on terror, it continued to expand, targeting new groups in new countries.

When Barack Obama, whom Lee supported in the Democratic primary in 2008, was elected, Lee thought her yearslong battle to repeal the AUMF would finally gain traction. Obama suggested on numerous occasions that he didn’t believe the AUMF should be use indefinitely and that it ought to be replaced. But he continued to order drone strikes, special operations raids, and—most controversially—the intervention against ISIS under its seemingly limitless remit.

Obama did eventually ask Congress for a specific anti-ISIS authorization in February 2015—six months after the conflict began—but it was never approved. In any event, Lee says she didn’t support that new authorization proposal, as it didn’t repeal the 2001 authorization, thus leaving the blank-check problem in place. Reflecting on the Obama administration’s efforts, she says, “I think they were serious, but I don’t think they knew how to do it. They used it like this administration is: for whatever they wanted to do.”

As for the Trump administration, Lee says she hasn’t seen any evidence that it intends to propose its own authorization. “We haven’t seen one,” she says. “I’ve asked. It should be the White House bringing forward an AUMF, and then we debate it. You never [know] about this White House—what they’re up to day by day.”

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Today, nearly two-thirds of Congress was not in office when the original AUMF was approved. There’s widespread bipartisan support for the notion that the 2001 authorization is out of date and should be replaced by something more suited to contemporary security threats, which have changed quite a bit in the past 16 years. The House Appropriations Committee vote is a sign that Congress would like to exert its constitutional role in determining how force is used going forward, as a host of other AUMF replacement plans that have been put forward in Congress in recent years. In addition to anti-war liberals such as Lee, the members engaged on this issue now run the gamut from legal stickler Democrats such as Tim Kaine and Adam Schiff, to libertarians such as Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, to uber-hawks such as Lindsey Graham.

But, like everything else in Congress, there’s disagreement about what form the new agreement should take. Republicans balked at Obama’s proposed anti-ISIS AUMF because it prohibited the use of “enduring offensive ground combat operations” and included a time limit before it would have to be replaced by a new authorization. Many Democrats felt it was still too broad and could be used to attack any number of extremist groups with vague ISIS links in multiple countries.

As for Lee, she says, “We need to have a debate to raise all these issues,” but after spending some time with her, it’s not clear to me what her ideal AUMF would actually look like or if such a thing even exists. The most famous line from her 2001 speech—which was actually a quote from the memorial service held at the National Cathedral earlier that day—was: “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Meaning, she is deeply skeptical of the overall notion of using military force to fight terrorism.

Lee denies being a pacifist—she said so several times during our interview—but her voting record is effectively pacifist: She voted against Bill Clinton’s military interventions in Iraq and Kosovo and supports the establishment of a “Department of Peace.” Though she was very active in urging the U.S. to take stronger action to prevent the genocide in Darfur—she was arrested at a protest outside the Sudanese Embassy, along with several fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in 2006—she says she would not have favored military intervention to stop it. She points to the Civil War and World War II as morally defensible uses of force but says, “I don’t think I’ve seen any just wars in my lifetime.”

Even as Lee’s colleagues have come around to her skepticism about open-ended military conflict, most don’t share her skepticism about military conflict itself.

I don’t entirely share it either. But perhaps, after 16 years of the war on terrorism,  which has cost the U.S. thousands of lives and billions of dollars and undermined constitutional norms while seemingly getting us no closer to solving the problem of violent extremism, it’s time to start asking whether Barbara Lee has a point.