WASHINGTON - A new war authorization is “not legally required'' to conduct combat operations against terrorist groups across the globe, top administration officials said Monday.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that the current authorization should not be repealed, even if Congress approves a new authorization of force to cover the fight against Islamic State.
“The United States must retain the proper legal authorities to ensure that nothing restricts or delays our ability to respond effectively and rapidly to terrorist threats to the United States,” Tillerson said.
Both leaders have said on multiple occasions that the current law, created after the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, covers the authorization needed to fight terror groups.
Mattis welcomed continued congressional support but expressed concern to lawmakers that should Congress decide to repeal the current law, coalition partners and America’s enemies might view that as “backing away” from the fight.
Tillerson added that Congress should not restrict the geography of any new war authorizations because the fight against terrorists can quickly move from continent to continent.
“This is the nature of the enemy we’re confronted with today,” Tillerson said.
The hearing comes as many in Congress have demanded a new authorization for the use of military force. Both Republicans and Democrats at the hearing Monday argued that the 16-year authorization is not tailored to the current counterterrorism fight.
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is sponsoring legislation for a new war authorization, said Monday that a new authorization may not be needed legally, but it’s “certainly needed politically.”
“We’ve got to have a conversation where the Congress is more involved here,” Flake said.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) warned that the post-9/11 authorization has become “so convoluted that it’s hard to trace a path” between its original purpose and its military use today.
Members of Congress argue that Islamic State is an enemy that did not exist 16 years ago, and the group has taken the counter-terror battle to countries that the original American war authorization did not anticipate fighting in.
Niger Pushes Limits
The demand for a new authorization was pushed to the political forefront after a deadly ambush in Niger killed four American soldiers and four members of Niger’s security forces.
The United States has about 800 service members in Niger to provide support for the U.S. embassy and counter-terrorism training for government forces battling Islamist militant groups. Several hundred more American troops are in other African countries.
Some lawmakers pushed Mattis on why so many troops were in Niger at the time of the attack. Mattis said that Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump sent troops there because “as the physical caliphate (of Islamic State) is collapsing, the enemy is trying to move somewhere.”
He added that the French have played a big role in building up militaries in West Africa, and the United States also has been “trying to prepare” these militaries in case their countries come under attack when the Islamic State caliphate falls apart.
Officials said the mission of the soldiers ambushed in Niger had been considered “low risk.” One U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told VOA that soldiers involved in the incident had said their meeting with local leaders had run late, and some suspected that the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure," the official said.
Various Islamist militant groups operate in Niger. Nigeria-based Boko Haram has carried out attacks in eastern Niger, and Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates in the west, along with pockets of Islamic State fighters.