Last week marked the first time that Americans born after 9/11 could enlist to fight in the wars sanctioned by the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force signed into law 17 years ago today. Not only is there no end in sight, but the reports over the last several weeks describing an expanding drone program in northern Africa epitomize how unmoored and unaccountable the U.S. “war on terror” has become. According to the New York Times report, the CIA is poised to begin armed drone strikes against suspected ISIS and al-Qaeda members in southern Libya from a newly expanded air base in northeastern Niger, even as the Department of Defense also expands its drone strikes in the region.
This news comes after more than a year of concerning developments under the Trump administration on issues of lethal force. Last October, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration had weakened important but already insufficient safeguards erected during the Obama administration for lethal strikes outside so-called “areas of active hostilities.” In addition to gutting important protections, the administration has shielded its policy changes from scrutiny. Despite calls from human rights groups and national security experts alike for the administration to release its lethal force policy, officials have refused to issue even an unclassified summary of the policy changes.
During this same year, the Trump administration reportedly has reversed an Obama administration effort to consolidate authority for lethal strikes within the Department of Defense and preserve only a narrow role for the CIA to conduct such strikes in exceptional circumstances. Reverting to an increased role for the CIA means more secrecy and less accountability.
Already the Trump administration has failed to comply with the reporting requirement in a 2016 Executive Order on mitigating civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations. The order requires the Director of National Intelligence to provide an annual public report on the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. government, including by the CIA, outside areas of active hostilities and the number of civilian casualties and combatant casualties caused by such strikes. By contrast, the Department of Defense did submit a required report to Congress on the civilian casualties resulting exclusively from U.S. military operations.
Congress has largely acquiesced to this expansion of lethal force and the simultaneous reduction in transparency, with only a few notable exceptions, allowing itself to be sidelined as the executive branch decides who the United States goes to war with and where, with no end in sight to the mission creep.
But for now, the executive branch is armed with an Authorization for Use of Military Force with no named enemy, no geographic restrictions, and no expiration date. Is it any wonder that Americans find themselves learning that their nation is poised to escalate a covert war with ISIS and al-Qaeda in Libya from investigative reporting by the New York Times rather than as a result of a robust debate and vote by their representatives in Congress?
We have now entered the 18th year of armed conflict following the 9/11 attacks. It is long past time for taking steps to ensure that war-based authorities are used only when specifically authorized by Congress and only with appropriate transparency and accountability measures in place.
Perhaps more importantly, when do we hit pause and assess whether the current approach is working? As Peter Bergen noted on CNN last week, based on statistics reported in the Washington Post four years ago, more than a quarter of Americans are too young to remember the 9/11 attacks and one in five were not even born at the time. With our nation’s sons and daughters born after 9/11 now able to enlist, don’t we owe it to them to have that conversation?