When Congress Responded To 9/11 By Giving the White House A Blank Check For Endless War

Twenty years ago, every member of the United States Senate and House of Representatives—except for Representative Barbara Lee—gave President George W. Bush the green light to wage war however he pleased.

Screen shot from "PBS Newshour." 

[Editor's Note: To mark the 20th anniversary of the rise of the American security state after the September 11th attacks, The Dissenter presents a retrospective on this transformation in policing and government. Each entry in the series, "Twenty Years In A Security State," will connect with whistleblower stories where possible.]

The authorization for military use of force (AUMF), which gave President George W. Bush’s administration a blank check for war after the September 11th attacks, still has not been repealed.

On September 14, 2001, Representative Barbara Lee cast the sole vote in the House of Representatives against the AUMF resolution.

“However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint,” Lee declared on the House floor. “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.”

But very few representatives and senators contemplated what could go wrong if they voted for the resolution.

Lee has mounted multiple efforts to repeal the 2001 AUMF, along with the 2002 AUMF that gave Bush the approval to invade Iraq.

Three presidential administrations have invoked the 2001 AUMF to “wage war in ways well beyond the scope that Congress initially intended,” according to Lee.

“The 2001 AUMF has been used to justify waging war in at least seven different countries, against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries,” Lee added, calling for an end to “blank check wars.”

In 2014, a coalition of groups including the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and Win Without War, urged Congress to recognize the 2001 AUMF did not authorize military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet leaders in Congress did not do anything to rectify the matter.

Remarks in support of the 2001 AUMF largely resembled locker room speeches.

“What they are about to learn is that America’s fighting men are the most powerful warriors in the history of the world,” Representative Mike Pence declared [PDF]. “Tonight I will solemnly and with deep humility vote to give our President the power to use all necessary and appropriate force to vanquish the enemies of our peace. May God have mercy on their souls. Because the United States of America will not.”

Representative Adam Schiff said, “We will go on, with growing confidence that we can fight terrorism wherever we find it and strengthened by the conviction that the generation of Americans now being tested will not falter or flag.”

“When the president draws that sword of American justice, he needs to do it with all of us standing right beside him,” Representative Tom DeLay proclaimed.

Representative Billy Tauzin lamented, “We have literally in the world allowed terrorists to exist too long. We have been on the defensive too long. We have taken too many body blows. It is time civilized man goes on the offensive.”

A few representatives were explicitly colonial and racist in their calls for action.

“Now is the time to lead the most extensive campaign against terrorism this world has ever seen, to annihilate those sources of hatred and terror, to break any nation assisting them in their efforts, to cleanse the Earth of the entire breed,” Representative Charlie Norwood brayed.

In the Senate, where the resolution passed with unanimous consent [PDF], Senator Joe Biden considered it “fairly remarkable that, in spite of the reasons for the attack on us and our way of life, [they] adhered to the rule of law; that even in this calamity, [they] acted with dispatch but under the law, under the Constitution.”

President George W. Bush signed the resolution on September 18. He praised both houses of Congress for acting "wisely, decisively, and in the finest traditions" of the United States.

'What Could Be Better From Bin Laden's Point Of View?'

Open reflection was unusual, but Senator Frank Murkowski, who later appointed his daughter Lisa Murkowski to the Senate, was one of the few voices of wisdom, despite his vote in support of the resolution.

“We are flirting with a world war between Islam and the West and the unknown consequences,” Murkowski warned. “We can only guess what bin Laden’s program is. Is this exactly what he wants? Is that why he did this, if indeed he did?”

“Well, we can read his speeches and statements. It seems to be all right there. It seems that he really believes Islam will beat the West. He figures if he can polarize the world into Islam and the West—he has a billion soldiers. If the West takes military action against an Islamic nation, would, in fact, bin Laden welcome that? What could be better from bin Laden’s point of view?”

Murkowski continued, “This would be a war that could last for years and millions would die— not just theirs but ours. Who has the stomach for that? We know bin Laden does. But is this really what we want? Discretion is often the better part of valor, even if our stomachs hunger for more.”

Senator Sam Brownback, who later was elected governor in Kansas, had a rare moment of recognition. “There have been a number of nations, great nations over history, that have tried to go into Afghanistan, and there has been great difficulty going into Afghanistan, whether it was the British or whether it was the Soviet Union, which could merely drive into Afghanistan with huge amounts of weaponry and force and still was not able to put the proud people of Afghanistan under their pressure and army."

“To think we can just drop bombs or drop a few troops into Afghanistan and that country will succumb to our pressure does not read correctly the history of that proud nation.”

Getting Rich Off Permanent War

Following the 2001 AUMF, and the 2002 AUMF, numerous senators and representatives went on to invest in major Pentagon contractors profiting off the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Center for Responsive Politics estimated in 2008 that 151 members had up to $195 million invested.

Representative Howard Berman, one of the members of Congress who enriched himself off the wars, went far beyond advocating for military action against the perpetrators of 9/11. He wanted the United States government to seize the moment to launch attacks on groups that had nothing to do with the tragedy.

“This isn’t just about bin Laden. There are other radical groups that engage in international terrorism, including Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. To win the war against terrorism, we must eliminate the entire infrastructure that sustains these organizations.”

Berman advocated for aggressive action against Syria, Iran, and the Palestinian Authority.

Why Was The U.S. Targeted And Not Some Other Western Country?

Returning to the House, Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, and Maxine Waters voted for the resolution but made some prescient remarks.

“The language before us is limited only by the slim anchor of its September 11 reference but allows war against any and all prospective persons and entities,” Holmes Norton contended.

Kucinich believed military action should be focused on arresting 9/11 suspects and putting them on trial.

“This is how we should show the world that we are a humane and democratic nation. That is what gives us the moral high ground. That is what we need to do to help prevent future attacks,” Kucinich stated. “Future attacks will not be prevented because terrorists fear our military.”

“For the critics of our policy of foreign intervention in the affairs of others, the attack on New York and Washington was not a surprise, and many have warned of its inevitability,” Paul acknowledged. “It so far has been inappropriate to ask why the U.S. was the target and not some other Western country. But for us to pursue a war against our enemies, it is crucial to understand why we were attacked, which will then tell us by whom we were attacked.

"Without this knowledge, striking out at six or eight or even 10 different countries could well expand this war of which we wanted no part.”

Paul also mentioned, “Too often over the last several decades we have supported both sides of many wars only to find ourselves needlessly entrenched in conflicts unrelated to our national security. It is not unheard of that the weapons and support we send to foreign nations have ended up being used against us. The current crisis may well be another example of such a mishap.”

And Waters openly admitted she was voting yes, even though she did not know what the resolution meant. “The language of this resolution can be interpreted in different ways,” she added.

“Many in this Congress will argue that we are not giving you the power to declare war. Others will argue that we are giving you the power to do anything from assassinate an individual, to declare war on an entire country.”

'They Didn't Want To Be Seen As Soft On Terrorism'

Screen shot from Rep. Barbara Lee's speech on September 14, 2001, against the AUMF.

Every presidential administration has claimed a vast authority beyond what some members of Congress ever thought they were authorizing, even though the resolution contained language that could be exploited for the purposes of endless war.

Lee’s powerful act of dissent inspired death threats. The Capitol Police guarded her for a short period. Talk radio in her home state of California was reportedly flooded with angry calls, where some called her a “communist.”

“During the crisis in Kosovo, she was the only House member to vote against authorizing President [Bill] Clinton to bomb Serbia,” according to the Washington Post.

Representative John Lewis praised Lee for her vote. “She demonstrated raw courage to stand up and vote the way she did. She stood alone, one against 420. Several other members wanted to be there also but at the same time, like me, they didn't want to be seen as soft on terrorism.

Twenty years later, Lee’s speech and vote stands as a rare act of courage, and with the U.S. military occupation over in Afghanistan, it is a flagrant dereliction of duty for Congress to allow the 2001 AUMF to remain in force.

As Lee eloquently put it days after 9/11, “I do not dispute the president's intent to rid the world of terrorism. But we have many means to reach that goal, and measures that spawn further acts of terror or that do not address the sources of hatred do not increase our security.”

Next in the series: The Bush administration authorizes the CIA to engage in torture