Friday May 17, 2013 | 10:55 AM

WASHINGTON – Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, got into an exchange with top defense officials on Thursday over whether the military’s current strategy to take the fight to terrorist groups worldwide is on a firm constitutional footing.

“Gentlemen, I’ve only been here five months but this is the most astounding and most astoundingly disturbing hearing that I have been to since I have been here,” King told a panel testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “You guys have essentially re-written the Constitution here today.”

King was responding to the Pentagon’s interpretation of the Authorization to Use Military Force passed by Congress in 2001 immediately following the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The authorization specifically authorizes the military to go after the nations, groups or leaders of those groups behind 9/11 in order to prevent future attacks.

But military and administration leaders said they believe the 2001 authorization allows them to go after terrorist groups around the globe, including places like Yemen and Somalia. They also said the authorization would allow the use of unmanned drone aircraft or other means in the future to attack groups in places where the U.S. is not currently engaged.

That prompted some probing questions from King and other senators who suggested that perhaps Congress needs to pass an updated authorization law.

King, a former Maine governor and constitutional scholar, was among the most vocal skeptics that the 2001 law authorizes the military to essentially declare war on other groups that were not involved in the Sept. 11th attacks or did not even exist at the time.

King called the congressional power to declare war “one of the most fundamental divisions in our constitutional scheme” and argued that, under the military’s broad reading of the 2001 authorization, Congress set a dangerous precedent and granted “unbelievable powers to the president.”

“I don’t disagree that we need to fight terrorism but we need to do in a constitutionally sound way,” King said. “Now I’m just a little ol’ lawyer from Brunswick, Maine, but I don’t see how you can possibly read this to be in comport with the Constitution.”

Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations, responded that al-Qaida attacked and killed Americans at the U.S. embassy in Kenya and on a U.S. warship in Yemen in the years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. So the military needs the ability to go after these clearly affiliated organizations that threatened and continue to threaten the country.

Robert Taylor, the acting general counsel at the Department of Defense, said al-Qaida operates as a closely knit organization with related groups. And while the organization al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, did not exist on 9/11, they are now closely linked with the larger organization and constitute a major threat.

“We believed that a group like AQIP is certainly within the scope of the authorization for the Use of Military Force enacted by the Congress and that it provides the authority to take the fight to AQAP just as it provides the authority to take the fight to al-Qaida’s senior leadership,” Taylor replied to King.

Other senators seemed comfortable with the military’s interpretation of the 2001 law. Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he disagreed with King’s reading and said the 2001 law co-authorizes action against “an co-belligerent to al Qaeda.”


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Kevin Miller is Washington bureau chief for the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media. He has worked as a journalist in Maine for 6 ½ years, covering the environment, politics and the State House. Before arriving in Maine, he wrote about politics, government and education for newspapers in Virginia and Maryland.
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