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NDAA debate: US programming the war machine

Sam Sacks is a political commentator and journalist, the last five years spent covering politics in Washington, DC.

Published time: May 23, 2013 10:00
MQ-9 Reaper.(Reuters / Staff Sgt. Ricky Best)

This week, four House Armed Services Subcommittees begin their markups of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act. And thus begins the debate over how to program the American war machine.

Not only does the National Defense Authorization Act establish funding levels for the various agencies in charge of our national defense, but it also sets the guidelines under which that money will be spent. If you remember what’s been in previous NDAA guidelines regarding the president’s war powers, Guantanamo Bay or indefinite detention, then you know this coming debate is extremely important.

The President knows it, too. He’s set to deliver a national security speech on Thursday outlining his programming vision for the American war machine, including how to handle Guantanamo Bay prisoners of the ‘War on Terror,’ where authority over drone targeted killings should lay, and what powers the Executive Branch should have in confronting threats around the planet (or, just how broadly the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force should be interpreted).

Reining in Drones

With the nomination of its architect, John Brennan, to head the CIA earlier this year, the White House’s drone targeted killing program caught the eye of Congress, which is now eager to inject more oversight into the policy. 

Congressman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), the Vice Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, recently introduced legislation requiring notification to Congress of any target killing missions in countries not currently at war with the United States.

As we work to keep Americans safe from evolving threats, we must ensure that every action is consistent with our civil liberties and freedoms.  This balance can only be achieved by proper oversight and accountability, and it is Congress’s job to provide both, ” Rep. Thornberry said in a press release.

The legislation, so far, has garnered more than two dozen other co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. And, as chair of the Emerging Threats and Intelligence Subcommittee in charge of writing portions of the new NDAA, Rep. Thornberry reportedly intends to insert this targeted killing oversight legislation into the 2014 NDAA.

There could be broader support for the measure coming from the Congressional Left – the Progressive Caucus, which recently held a hearing on the Executive’s drone program and called for more Congressional oversight.

Congress has been yielding too much power to the executive ,” Rep. Keith Ellison, the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), told me.

The President has said let’s put a legal architecture around this thing, ” he added. “

The Progressive Caucus said we’re diving in head first.

Rep. Ellison laid out his vision of what codifying the drone program would look like: “

We’ve got to put some real rules on this, ” he said. “

There’s no way anyone should be killed by an American drone unless they are actively in pursuit of killing American and there is a legitimate internationally recognized justification on the basis of self-defense.

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

When asked if the NDAA is the place to fight this battle over drones, Rep. Ellison said, “Yes. That is a good vehicle to raise these issues. We plan to really push back on this endless war program in the process.”

The White House is expected to announce on Thursday its intention to partially move the drone program out of the Central Intelligence Agency and to the Department of Defense, where more oversight is possible. However, the White House reportedly would like to keep the CIA operating drones in Pakistan, where it can “maintain deniability.”

But the CPC is willing to go a step further beyond drones and push to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which President Obama has used to justify drone strikes abroad in countries we’re not currently at war with. Rep. Ellison has signed on with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) on a bill to completely repeal the AUMF.

This is a bicameral interest. A recent hearing in the Senate exposed a dangerously broad interpretation of the AUMF by the Department of Defense. Officials with the DoD suggested that the AUMF gives the White House authority to use military force anywhere in the world, from the Congo to Boston, against terrorist organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda. It was also argued by the Pentagon that this authorization for a worldwide War on Terror will likely last 20 to 30 years.

Sen. Angus King (I-ME) reacted to the Pentagon’s AUMF assertions, saying, “

This is the most astounding and most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I've been to since I've been here. You guys have essentially rewritten the Constitution today ."

Any action to change the AUMF in the NDAA would have significant impact not just on drones, but also on issues of indefinite detention that have been raised in previous years’ NDAAs and, in particular, what to do about the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin.(AFP Photo / Chip Somodevilla)

Closing Guantanamo

With the current hunger strike at Guantanamo now well beyond 100 days, there’s been renewed attention on the facility on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

At the end of April, President Obama once again promised to close the facility. According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the President will put forward his new plan to close Gitmo in Thursday’s speech.

In last year’s NDAA, Congress put up a series of restrictions on transferring prisoners out of Gitmo. Those will all be addressed again in the coming weeks and months. And there’s recently been a new push in Congress to close Gitmo.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) wrote a letter to the White House urging the President to use a “national security waiver” to transfer the 86 Gitmo prisoners who’ve been cleared for release or transfer. Also, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote to the White House asking them to “

revisit the decision to halt [Guantanamo] transfers to Yemen .” And Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA) held a rare hearing on Capitol Hill about Gitmo, alleging that torture has taken place at the facility and that it needs to be closed.

Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), have suggested they may be willing to revisit the issue of closing Guantanamo, but have bemoaned the White House’s lack of a clear plan on how to close it. And considering the Pentagon has recently asked for $450 million to renovate Gitmo, there are legitimate questions about just how serious the White House is when it comes to closing the facility.

The coming NDAA debate will also address issues related to a missile defense shield on the East coast, changes to how the military responds to sexual assault and recommendations on how to better secure diplomatic missions around the world.

So, with that, let the programming of the American war machine begin!

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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