Pentagon officials: Drone War on Terror is endless

At Congressional hearing, Defense officials defend AUMF and the boundless war-waging powers it grants

By Natasha Lennard

Published May 17, 2013 1:53PM (EDT)

During a Congressional hearing Thursday on drone strikes carried out by the military, senior defense official Michael Sheehan admitted that the War on Terror is one without end or boundary. The assistant defense secretary told the Senate Armed Services Committee that U.S. military operations against al-Qaida and associated forces "is going to go on for quite a while... beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

Sheehan's remarks served as a defense of the military's current drone strike policy. While the majority of U.S. drone strikes are carried out by the CIA and authorized by the president directly, the Pentagon oversees strikes in Pakistan and will take increasing control of U.S. drone programs. Sheehan also defended the current structure of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act (AUMF), passed after 9/11, which, in its present iteration, grants the president wide-ranging powers to wage drone wars. “At this point we’re comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured,” said Sheehan. He admitted that there was no expiration date or geographic boundary to the War on Terror.

As The Washington Post's Karren DeYoung noted on the hearing:

Originally interpreted to apply to al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in recent years, the AUMF has been expanded to authorize drone strikes against what the administration calls al-Qaida “associates” as far afield as Yemen and Somalia. Sheehan and the Defense Department’s acting counsel, Robert S. Taylor, said there are no geographic boundaries on future use against groups deemed affiliates of the main al-Qaida organization.

Human rights advocates critical of the sprawling, unending War on Terror have urged that AUMF be scrapped or changed. In a separate recent Congressional hearing on drone strikes, focusing on CIA as opposed to military strikes, Director of Amnesty International USA’s Security with Human Rights Campaign, Zeke Johnson remarked on the dangerously broad purview AUMF provides:

For over a decade, the U.S. government has claimed that it is engaged in a global and pervasive armed conflict against a diffuse network of non-state actors which provides its forces the license to kill individuals anywhere in the world at any time, whenever it deems -- based on secret information -- such actions to be appropriate. The message sent is that a government can ignore or jettison its human rights obligations and replace them with rules of its own whenever it deems the circumstances warrant it. The "global war" theory must be rejected, its central pillar, the 2001 AUMF, must be repealed, and the US government must adhere to the international legal definition of armed conflict.

During Thursday's hearing, a number of lawmakers challenged the defense officials for their defense of a boundless conflict. DeYoung reported:

Several lawmakers expressed outrage at what they saw as the lack of specificity. “Here we are, 12 years later, and you . . . come before us and tell us that you don’t think it needs to be updated. Well, clearly it does,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who described the testimony as “disturbing.”

Others disagreed. “I tend to agree that what we have today is working,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

The committee appeared divided on whether a new version should be written to curtail the law or whether its current expansive interpretation should be authorized. Because the administration has described al-Qaeda’s leadership core in Pakistan as gravely wounded by the strikes and Afghanistan is seeking peace negotiations with the Taliban, several questioned how any of the group’s “associates” could still be targeted under the law.

“In other words, could we be in a situation in which Afghanistan is no longer at war against Mullah Omar’s Taliban, but we still are?” asked Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).

“It could be the case, yes, senator,” Sheehan said.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Afghanistan Al-qaida Aumf Defense Department Drones Pentagon Terrorism U.s. Military War On Terror