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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

House Democrat Barbara Lee: Congress has been ‘missing in action’ on war powers

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), center, at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 25, 2023, for an even to launch her campaign for U.S. Senate.    (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
By Olivier Knox and Caroline Anders Washington Post

One week after 9/11, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation enabling President George W. Bush to go after the perpetrators. Rep. Barbara Lee was the sole “no” vote. Today, the California Democrat wants Congress to reassert its influence over where, when and why the United States goes to war.

In an interview with The Washington Post, timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Lee talked about the latest efforts to repeal the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that greenlighted the invasion - and what it was like to stand alone in 2001.

The conversation about the two AUMFs is far from a sterile academic exercise.

Four presidents have invoked the 2001 AUMF to justify military operations all over the globe - and the public doesn’t know the true extent of those commitments, many of which remain classified. It has no expiration date or geographic limits.

Two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, invoked the 2002 Iraq AUMF as legal justification for strikes in Iraq and Syria - even though that measure concerned the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who was executed in 2006.

This is as much about the future of America at war as the past.

“It was a very difficult vote, because I knew it would be misinterpreted,” Lee said of the 2001 AUMF. “Right after 9/11, everyone, our whole country was angry and mourning, uncertain about what was taking place, very emotional.”

Including her.

“Everyone wanted to be unified with the president, including myself,” she said. “It was a tough vote.”

Was she surprised about being the only “no” in a Congress that included people such as Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died in 2020, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)?

“I wasn’t surprised, because I knew it was a tough vote, and I knew the context of that vote. There was anger - people wanted revenge,” she said. “I knew there wouldn’t be many.”

(A day after the vote, The Post quoted Lewis as saying “several other members” wanted to vote with her, “but at the same time, like me, they didn’t want to be seen as soft on terrorism.” He added, “I was probably 99 percent of the way there in my heart and my soul.”)

But far beyond being the legal justification for the war in Afghanistan, the 2001 AUMF was “really a blank check that set the stage for forever wars and took away Congress’s constitutional responsibility,” said Lee, who is now running for the Senate seat being vacated by Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is retiring.

Here’s how she put it in her floor speech on Sept. 14, 2001:

“However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say: ‘Let us step back for a moment. Let us just pause for a minute and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.’”

One consequence from her vote: “So many death threats.” By phone or by mail - she got voice mails that were just the sound of gunshots. She shut down her office phones. She got a police escort.

Near the 20th anniversary of the vote, The Post’s Gillian Brockell documented the sort of abuse aimed at Lee. A sample: “You do not stand alone in evil - you stand with [Osama] Bin Laden & Hitler & Judas.”

Lee fought a less lonely battle against the 2002 Iraq War authorization - although it still passed with bipartisan support - and her push to get rid of that AUMF has gathered bipartisan momentum over the years. It now has White House support, and may have its best chance to reach the president’s desk this year.

“We don’t need it,” she said. “It’s past time to repeal this authorization.”

Lee bristled when asked about opposition to a repeal, which has taken two broad tacks: First, that there’s no harm in keeping it on the books and, second, that it risks taking away useful authorities from the commander in chief.

“They’re not valid arguments if you believe the Constitution,” she said. “We’ve been missing in action.”

What about replacing it rather than repealing it?

“Replaced with what?” she asked. “If the president wants to use force anywhere in the world, come to Congress and give us the facts… . Where do you want the authority to use force?”

Lee also wants to repeal the 2001 AUMF. That’s harder to do.

It’s not the only legal justification for using military force - the president can invoke Article II of the Constitution in some cases, and Congress has authorized the executive to train, equip and support partners around the world. But it’s the global war on terrorism’s founding text.

“It’s a blank check,” she said.

Her proposal would give the administration eight months “to determine whether or not it needs to be replaced, why, and where” and craft new legislation accordingly, Lee said.

“This is a marathon, and we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet,” she said. “But we’ll get there.”