The White House said that the operations in both Libya and Somalia drew their authority from the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, a 12-year-old piece of legislation that was drafted in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks. At the heart of the AUMF is a single 60-word sentence, which has formed the legal foundation for nearly every counterterrorism operation the U.S. has conducted since Sept. 11, from Guantanamo Bay and drone strikes to secret renditions and SEAL raids. Everything rests on those 60 words.
Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.
Culled from interviews with former and current members of Congress, as well as staffers and attorneys who served in both the Bush and the Obama administrations, this is the story of how those 60 words came to be, the lone objector to their implementation, and their continuing power in the world today. The story, like most modern ones of America at war, begins in the shadow of 9/11 with a lawyer and Word document.
It’s difficult to believe that the same outfit that churns out listicles like “18 Incredibly Important Cheese Puns To Make You Smile” (It’s cheesy, but it’ll make you feel grate!) could also be the same folks that commissioned and published “60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History,” the piece I quoted and linked to above. But they did and wow, did Gregory D. Johnson hit it out of the park.
The piece was published three months ago; I only came to hear about it after it inspired an entire episode of Radiolab (which, it goes without saying, is a must-listen), so I’m not breaking any news here, but with the weekend coming up, this is a piece of writing you, dare I say, have a responsibility to spend some time with.