Hillary Clinton speaks during the second official 2016 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, IO on Nov. 14, 2015.
Jim Young—Reuters
By Zeke J Miller
November 15, 2015

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she wasn’t in favor of a specific declaration of war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria in Saturday’s Democratic debate, but she muddied the water over the powers of the post-9/11 war authorization against al Qaeda.

Clinton repeated the Obama administration’s assertion that the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force covers the ongoing campaign against ISIS.

“We have an authorization to use military force against terrorists. We passed it after 9/11. It certainly does cover it,” she said. But, in fact, the act only authorizes action against those nations or groups which “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

The discrepancy is one that has been repeatedly seized upon by congressional critics of executive overreach such as Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who has supported action against ISIS but has called for the passage of a new, specific authorization for strikes against ISIS.

The Obama administration has relied on a complicated logic to justify its 15-month campaign against ISIS under the 2001 law, though it has called on Congress to amend the legislation—a move Clinton endorsed Saturday.

“I would like to see it updated … it would have to go through the Congress. I know the White House has actually been working with members of Congress, maybe now we can get it moving again to get it upgraded so that it can include all the tools and everything in our arsenal to try to work with our allies and our friends, come up with better intelligence. you know, it is difficult finding intelligence that is actionable in a lot of these places, but we have to keep trying. and we have to do more to prevent the flood of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, especially the ones with western passports to come back. so there’s a lot of work we need to do, and I want to be sure that what’s called the AUMF has the authority that’s needed going forward.”

Here’s how the Obama administration justified using the 2001 AUMF against ISIS in 2014:

The 2001 AUMF authorizes the use of “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons” responsible for 9/11 and those who “harbored such organizations or persons.” The Administration has interpreted the 2001 AUMF to authorize the use of force against AQ, the Taliban, and associated forces. Based on ISIL’s longstanding relationship with al-Qa’ida (AQ) and Usama bin Laden; its long history of conducting, and continued desire to conduct, attacks against U.S. persons and interests, the extensive history of U.S. combat operations against ISIL dating back to the time the group first affiliated with AQ in 2004; and ISIL’s position — supported by some individual members and factions of AQ-aligned groups — that it is the true inheritor of Usama bin Laden’s legacy, the President may rely on the 2001 AUMF as statutory authority for the use of force against ISIL, notwithstanding the recent public split between AQ’s senior leadership and ISIL.

With reporting by Tessa Berenson in Washington

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