Lawmaker: ‘Very little’ Obama work so far to rewrite ‘war on terrorism’ law

U.S. Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks at a town hall meeting on healthcare reform in Alhambra, California, August 11, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Will the law that justified the invasion of Afghanistan outlive the U.S. combat mission there? One prominent lawmaker worries that it will.

President Obama’s drive to rewrite America’s main “war on terrorism” legislation has stalled, a victim of national security staffers’ heavy focus on NSA spying and the charged partisan climate of a mid-term election year.

That’s the diagnosis from Rep. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), a leading voice in his party for changing the legislation conceived to authorize the war in Afghanistan but also used to justify everything from drone strikes in Yemen to an unprecedented expansion of government spying.

“I don’t see any real movement in the administration on this. And apart from some discussions during various hearings I don’t see much congressional appetite on it either,” Schiff told Yahoo News in a telephone interview on Thursday.

Asked how much progress he’s seen from the administration on rewriting the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) for Afghanistan, Schiff replied: “Very little.”

Obama announced he would make overhauling the AUMF a key second-term goal last May in an ambitious speech at the National Defense University.

“I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing,” he said.

Instead, Obama found himself in the middle of a global firestorm sparked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks. The president launched a review of the agency’s spying, which led to an ongoing effort to recalibrate high-profile programs like the one that collects Americans’ telephone data.

“My sense is that dealing with the NSA reforms has been almost a full-time occupation for a lot of the White House and administration staff, as well as the principals, and taking on another issues like AUMF reform may be beyond their capacity,” Schiff said.

The White House disputes that notion. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told Yahoo that “having now done an in-depth review of surveillance programs, we also need to look at the current AUMF.”

“At this stage, we are discussing this issue and look forward to engaging the Congress more robustly as we refine our thinking,” Hayden said. “They will be a critical partner in getting us to the President’s goal of refining and ultimately repealing the AUMF.”

But Congress could be asked as early as March to attempt legislative fixes to some NSA issues – like creating an independent entity to store Americans’ telephone data, or a special board that could be called in to give advice when government spying practices enter new frontiers of law.

After that process “you start getting close to the mid-terms,” said Schiff. “I don’t think there’s the appetite” to tackle the AUMF at that point.

Schiff, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, noted that lawmakers have broached the subject of overhauling the law, but said there was “not much of a drive to really grapple with the issue in part because it is an enormous legal and political challenge.”

The congressman said the challenge of crafting a new law that is both broader —in that it doesn’t rely as much on 9/11 or focus on a single organization like Al-Qaeda—and narrower, in the sense that “you don’t authorize the president to use force in innumerable circumstances and across several administrations.” (Schiff’s preferred approach includes a so-called “sunset” provision, essentially an expiration date for the AUMF that requires Congress to debate the issue and fine-tune the legislation regularly).

He pointed to the end of the primary combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and to “core” Al-Qaeda leadership’s decision to repudiate an offshoot in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

“There should be an increasing sense of urgency about resolving the AUMF issues, both because we’re drawing down our forces in Afghanistan and because the threat is evolving in Syria,” he said. What happens, legally, “when core al-Qaeda very prominently and officially deems one of the more dangerous groups to the United States a non-affiliate.”

Efforts to overhaul major “war on terrorism” policies are tough to bring to fruition in an election year, when politicians may be more tempted than usual to score style points over substance. Lawmakers have also been divided on just how much – if anything -- needs to be done. Schiff pointed to a recent battle over whether the U.S. military should assume more responsibility for drone strikes currently run by the intelligence community.

Schiff explained: “When you consider the blowback you’re going to get no matter what you propose, it doesn’t make it very attractive.”