The Obama administration released a sweeping report to Congress on Wednesday arguing it hasn't overstepped its legal authority in dispatching the U.S. military to assist NATO forces trying to pressure Muammar el-Qaddafi to yield power. Essentially, the White House is making the case that the U.S. is not really at war with Libya.
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Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are questioning whether President Obama has violated the spirit—if not the letter—of the law under the War Powers Resolution, which requires the executive branch to seek authorization from Congress to go to war. But in its report to Congress and comments to reporters, administration officials said U.S. involvement has been limited to providing aerial surveillance and refueling support in the NATO-led operation.
"The president is of the view that the current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the War Powers Resolution and do not under that law require further congressional authorization, because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of 'hostilities' contemplated by the resolution’s 60-day termination provision," according to the report.
In a call with reporters before the release of the report, White House Counsel Bob Bauer noted that U.S. forces “are not engaged in sustained fighting, there’s no exchange of fire with hostile forces, we don’t have troops on the ground.”
“We are confident that we are operating consistent within the resolution,” Bauer said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want the ongoing full consultation of Congress or the authorization as we move forward, but that doesn’t go to our legal position under the statute itself.”
The report released to Congress came in response to a House resolution passed on June 3 requiring the White House to submit a report to the lower chamber by Friday describing U.S. security interests and objectives in Libya and addressing a variety of lawmakers' concerns about the mission.
It remains to be seen if the report will be enough to answer lawmakers’ concerns. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner wrote to Obama that he will be in violation of the War Powers Resolution unless he receives congressional authorization by Sunday or else withdraws troops and resources from the mission. And earlier on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a federal lawsuit asking a court to prevent the administration from using U.S. funds for military action in Libya.
“The White House claim that the war is not war is not a legal argument," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who was the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It is a political argument."
Administration officials also indicated they remain committed to assisting the NATO effort until Qaddafi is gone, and believe the coordinated military assault has led to degradation of the regime. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House has been buoyed by a series of defections among military leaders and rank-and-file members of the regime. But officials were hesitant to comment on reports that Qaddafi is looking to negotiate a settlement that would ease him out of power and end the hostilities.
“I think that it’s hard for us to gauge Qaddafi’s mindset,” Rhodes cautioned. “I think that what we have are the indicators of his behavior and the behavior of those around him. And I think what you’ve seen is cracks in the regime that have been building over time, that have spread from the leadership and some of the political leadership that has abandoned him, but has also now spread into the military.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that the U.S. has so far spent about $750 million on the mission. White House officials noted on Wednesday that the mission is being paid for by shifting spending within the Defense Department budget, and they project that the Defense Department will spend $1.1 billion through September, when the current NATO mandate is set to expire.
“We don't plan to request a supplemental,” Rhodes said. “We believe that the operations can be covered within the existing budget. In many respects, that means offsetting other costs, rather than again seeking any new money.”
Lawmakers were plunging through the lengthy document early Wednesday evening, but Boehner's initial reaction was cool.
“The creative arguments made by the White House raise a number of questions that must be further explored," said Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck. "Regardless, the commander-in-chief has a responsibility to articulate how U.S. military action is vital to our national security and consistent with American policy goals. With Libya, the president has fallen short on this obligation. We will review the information that was provided today, but hope and expect that this will serve as the beginning, not the end, of the president’s explanation for continued American operations in Libya.”