- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asserted Thursday that the Obama administration is fully within its “constitutional and statutory authority” to green light the use of U.S. military force against Islamic State extremists not only in Iraq but also inside Syria.

Because the group, also known by the acroynym ISIL, operates “freely across the Iraqi-Syrian border and maintains a safe haven in Syria, our actions will not be restrained by a border that exists in name only,” Mr. Hagel told lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee.

Under the latest war strategy, which President Obama was briefed on by the Pentagon on Wednesday, the U.S. will take “targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria, including it’s command and control, logistics capabilities and infrastructure,” the secretary of defense said.

His remarks added to a growing Obama administration argument this week that the president is fully justified to open a new American military campaign against the Islamic State, regardless of whether Capitol Hill specifically approves the action.

Debate over the extent to which Mr. Obama can grow the campaign — specifically on whether White House can legally authorize U.S. force inside Syria without explicit congressional approval — has seethed this week beneath a series hearings that lawmakers have held in an attempt to pressure the administration into clarifying its evolving strategy for fighting the Islamic State.

The House on Wednesday voted to approve President Obama’s plan to train and arm some Syrian rebels in the hope that they will fight Islamic State militants advancing in Syria and Iraq. But lawmakers stopped short of including language authorizing the White House to use direct U.S. military force, including air strikes and possible ground troops, inside either nation.

Some lawmakers said they feared that despite the president’s assurances, the U.S. will be drawn into another war. More hawkish Democrats and Republicans, though, worried that the U.S. isn’t doing enough and that Mr. Obama still owes Congress and the American people a comprehensive strategy. They argued that assisting the rebels should be considered only a first step.

Since Aug. 8, U.S. fighter jets and drones have pounded targets inside Iraq with more than 160 airstrikes. Pentagon officials say the strikes have destroyed armed vehicles, tanks, armored personnel carriers in possession of Islamic State militants, as well as hitting at least one boat on the Euphrates River.

It has not been immediately clear this week when a U.S. bombing inside Syria may commence.

Hours before Wednesday’s House vote, Secretary of State John F. Kerry told lawamakers that he and others in administration “welcome” Congress to weigh in on the war plan for Syria and Iraq.

But, Mr. Kerry asserted, the White House is fully justified to act on its own under 13-year-old language in a congressional authorization that was given to the Bush administration to make war against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Good lawyers within the White House, within the State Department,” Mr. Kerry said, have determined the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) clearly applies to the current campaign against the Islamic State, because the operation was born out of the same al Qaeda organization that carried out the 9/11 attacks.

The Islamic State group began “as al Qaeda in 2005 in Iraq,” the secretary of state said, adding that the group only changed its name in recent years as a part of a ploy to try and distinguish itself from al Qaeda’s ailing original core in Pakistan and Afghanistan that was founded by the now-deceased Osama bin Laden.

“They are the same people doing — the same people that we were prepared to and were attacking for all those years,” the secretary of state told lawmakers during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday. “A mere publicity stunt to separate yourself and call yourself something else does not get you out from under the force of the United States law that is targeting you.”

Despite the ongoing debate over the 2001 authorization’s applicability to the current war strategy, several lawmakers, including prominent Republicans, have suggested they fully agree with the Obama administration’s authorization of U.S. force in both Syria and Iraq.

“Every week we wait, ISIL grows,” Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Thursday. “We need to conduct military operations in both Iraq and Syria.”

• Maggie Ybarra contributed to this report

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