In the roughly 19 months since Islamic militants launched deadly attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, federal investigators have promised to never give up the manhunt to find those responsible for the Sept. 11, 2012, strikes. But the effort has been treated differently than missions targeting extremists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other countries. U.S. officials say they don't have authorization to kill the attackers in Libya because they are not officially connected to al Qaeda, riling those who want justice for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans killed in Benghazi.
In response, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said Wednesday that he will introduce new legislation that would clear the path for U.S. troops to directly target the Benghazi attackers. Doing so would require a change in the Authorization of Use of Military Force legislation that was passed by Congress and signed into law by then-President George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that allowed the president to target "nations, organizations or persons" that were determined to have had a direct role in the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York or to have harbored those terrorists. The law has been used to justify American strikes in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Some of them have proven controversial, especially when involving airstrikes by armed drones. Human rights groups estimate drone strikes have killed many hundreds of civilians around the world, a charge U.S. officials fervently deny.
Hunter will introduce the new legislation May 7 as the House Armed Services Committee deliberates the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 defense spending bill, said his spokesman, Joe Kasper. But the legislation faces an uphill battle as part of a fight that has grown intensely political. Republicans on Capitol Hill have repeatedly accused the Obama administration of hiding facts about the Benghazi investigation from them, but Senate Democrats have accused the GOP of politicizing a tragedy and pressed their fellow lawmakers to drop the issue while the United States confronts challenges like the current stand-off with Russia.
Kasper said that Hunter's interest in changing the force authorization legislation - commonly referred to as the "AUMF" -- came after Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was pressed about Benghazi during a closed-door Armed Services Committee session last fall. According to transcripts declassified by the Pentagon in January, Dempsey was asked by Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Texas, why the United States had not gone after the attackers if senior U.S. officials knew who they were. Dempsey said the current AUMF didn't allow American forces to hunt down and kill the militants.
"They don't fall under the AUMF authorized by the Congress of the United States," Dempsey said, according to the transcript. "So we would not have the capability to simply find them and kill them either with a remotely-piloted aircraft or with an assault on the ground. Therefore, they will have to be captured and we would when asked provide options to do that."
No known U.S. military operations have been launched in Libya to target the Benghazi attackers. The State Department acknowledged in November that it has offered $10 million to anyone with information that could lead to the capture of those involved in the attacks.
A spokesman for Dempsey, Col. Edward Thomas, declined to comment on Wednesday. But Kasper, Hunter's spokesman, said naysayers shouldn't be quick to discount the new legislation. It's up to Obama to exercise his authority as commander in chief, he said, but it would be wise for the president to at least have the power to act against the Benghazi attackers.
"The administration has a pattern of going out of its way to argue why it can't do something or its hands are tied," Kasper said. "To argue that existing authority doesn't permit action, should it be necessary, is one thing. To argue it's unnecessary or unwanted when there are four dead Americans is another."
The crux of the issue rests largely on how the Benghazi attackers are defined -- a sensitive subject, considering a longstanding debate over whether the White House tried to attribute the coordinated assault on U.S. facilities to an emotional response to the release of an Internet video belittling Islam, rather than terrorism. In a Rose Garden speech a day after the attacks, Obama said "no acts of terror" would ever shake U.S. resolve. But a few days later, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on Sunday political shows that their best assessment at the time suggested the incident Benghazi began as a response to the viral video, and then was "hijacked" by extremists in the area.
The attackers are now thought to have launched a premeditated attack on the U.S. facilities, and to be members of Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan militia group whose fighters were in Benghazi at the time. Three chapters of the group were added to the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations in January.
On Tuesday, the conservative group Judicial Watch distributed previously unreleased emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that show key White House officials discussing talking points about the investigation in the days afterward. One of them shows Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, telling other administration officials that the goal of Rice's appearances on the Sunday shows after the Benghazi attacks was to "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy." He added that Rice should "reinforce the President and Administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges." White House officials have defended the content in the emails, saying it reflects what the administration believed to be the facts at that time.