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State Department aides won’t rule out existing authorizations allowing for attack on Iran

Officials would not commit on seeking congressional approval for military action, either

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., look to reconcile differences over congressional authorization for the use of military force. (File photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and ranking member Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., look to reconcile differences over congressional authorization for the use of military force. (File photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Senior State Department officials wouldn’t commit to a Senate panel Wednesday that the Trump administration will seek congressional authorization for a potential military conflict with Iran, nor would they promise that existing military authorizations would not be reinterpreted to allow attacks on Iran.

Rather, the Trump administration officials said they would consult and inform lawmakers of any administration plans to carry out military strikes on Iran, including actions related to the defense of U.S. troops and partner forces.

[Echoes of the AUMF in Trump’s national emergency declaration]

“We will certainly act in accordance with the law and seek consultations with Congress,” said David Hale, undersecretary of State for political affairs, during an appearance before the Foreign Relations Committee.

Marik String, the acting legal adviser at the State Department, said the administration is committed to keeping Congress “fully informed about how we think about these issues.”

[Bill would honor Rep. Walter Jones by repealing AUMF]

Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez responded he wasn’t reassured by promises to consult with lawmakers.

“This administration generally is not very cooperative about giving members of this committee information, so I’m not too warmed by that suggestion,” the New Jersey Democrat said.

The officials reiterated that the administration currently has not interpreted either the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaida or the 2002 Iraq AUMF as allowing offensive action against Iran.

In late June, String wrote to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York that “the administration has not, to date, interpreted either AUMF as authorizing military force against Iran, except as may be necessary to defend U.S. or partner forces engaged in counterterrorism operations or operations to establish a stable, democratic Iraq.”

Menendez noted that the letter and the officials’ testimony left open the door to reinterpreting the AUMFs to allow future attacks on Iran.

“This caveat of ‘to date’ creates a great deal of anxiety that you are going to interpret this authorization beyond the pale to enter into a military engagement with Iran other than in response to an action that protects our personnel and our military,” he said.

Senior administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have attempted in closed-door briefings in recent weeks to draw connections between Iran and al-Qaida, according to officials and lawmakers at Wednesday’s hearing.

“There have been a provision of safe haven to elements of al-Qaida,” Hale said.

When Sen. Edward J. Markey asked the undersecretary whether he was aware of any “plotting” between the Iranian government and al-Qaida that was against U.S. national interests, Hale said he could only answer in a classified setting.

Markey said he was eager to have that briefing, adding he has seen “no evidence classified or otherwise that provides any evidence of this link.”

The Massachusetts Democrat also pressed to find out under what authority President Donald Trump ordered a retaliatory strike on several Iranian targets in June after Tehran shot down a U.S. drone. The president canceled the strike hours before it would have occurred.

“Your question gets at some of the most sensitive types of decision-making,” String said. “I can’t get into specific deliberative issues surrounding that set of events.”

Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch, who was in the White House with the president during a portion of the strike deliberations in June, shed some light on the matter.

“The decision was made in my judgment under Article 2 [of the Constitution] and I guess you could argue that wasn’t appropriate but there was no advice given that Article 2 didn’t apply when we were talking about defending U.S. persons and U.S. assets in the region,” the Idaho Republican said.

Tensions with Iran are at their highest point in decades following the administration’s withdrawal last year from the 2015 nuclear agreement and its unprecedented use of sanctions to target the Iranian economy. Iran has retaliated by shooting down U.S. drones, seizing the tankers of U.S. allies and partner nations like the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, and through incremental violations of its commitments under the nuclear deal.

After years of inaction on whether to repeal or update the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs, lawmakers, especially Democrats, are increasingly agitating for action.

The House-passed fiscal 2020 defense appropriations bill contains language that would sunset the 2001 AUMF in eight months. The Senate is not expected to include such a provision when it produces its own version of the measure.

And senators last month rejected an amendment to the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill from Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, that would have blocked Trump from launching a war on Iran absent congressional authorization. But the House-passed version of the defense authorization legislation included the Iran war prohibition.

Reconciling differences over the AUMF issue is expected to be a major point of partisan tension in conference negotiations this year.

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