White House Responds To Criticism About Libya

In a report to Congress, the Obama administration Wednesday made the case that U.S. involvement in the current NATO action in Libya does not invoke the war power. NPR's Scott Horsley talks to Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The White House responded today to criticism from Congress about U.S. involvement in Libya. The NATO bombing campaign in Libya began almost three months ago and some lawmakers say the U.S. military action should be formally authorized by Congress. But in documents sent to Congress today, the White House insists that formal authorization is not necessary because there are no troops on the ground and U.S. involvement is limited.

NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now. And, Scott, what's prompting these questions now from Congress?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, Melissa, there have been some questions really all along from Congress. But, as you point out, what's really significant now is that we're nearing that 90-day mark in the operation. The battle in Libya began on March 18th, and under the War Powers Act, that's how long a president is allowed to carry out military action without getting an explicit okay from lawmakers.

Yesterday, the House speaker, John Boehner, sent a letter to the president asking what's going on. Lawmakers said they been kept informed about the operation, but there's a difference between getting an update and being asked for your approval.

BLOCK: Okay, and in these documents that the White House sent to Congress today, how does the White House respond?

HORSLEY: Well, it's a fairly detailed report that the administration has sent up to the Hill, and they're stressing what's been achieved through military action: Defending the operation as stopping the advance of Moammar Gadhafi; and protecting civilians in places like Benghazi, that otherwise might have been the scene of a humanitarian outrage; and also stressing that pretty early on in the operation that the U.S. handed over the leadership of the military exercise the NATO.

So, non-U.S. forces are now carrying out most of the missions, even though the U.S. is still providing some things that it alone can, like unmanned drones up in the skies. Most importantly, stressing that there are no troops on the ground, which was a commitment that President Obama made even before the shooting began.

BLOCK: And, Scott, does this boil down really to a turf battle between Congress - which has the power to declare war - and the president as commander-in-chief?

HORSLEY: It really is, although, I think, the White House is sort of trying to avoid casting it in those terms. Remember, President Obama was a senator before he came to the White House so he's seen this question from both sides.

White House spokesman Jay Carney did point out today, though, that the constitutional basis of the War Powers Act has been the subject of dispute for years.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (Press Secretary, White House): There is a long debate about this, as you all know. The material that's been written and testified to about this could fill this room over the years. I would point out that there has been some expressions on the Hill about this issue that are inconsistent with expressions in the past. And I think that - if nothing else - testifies to the fact that there is a lot of debate about it.

This president believes that he has acted in a manner that is consistent with the War Powers Resolution.

HORSLEY: Oftentimes, that the debate has a partisan cast to it. You know, people are more wary of having a president of the other party carrying out an undeclared war.

In this case, though, a senior administration official says, very carefully, that the White House is not challenging the constitutionality of the War Powers Act. Instead, they seem to be relying on the limited nature of the exercise to say that 90-day limit doesn't apply here.

BLOCK: Now, Scott, earlier today there was a group of 10 lawmakers, led by Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina, who filed a lawsuit there seeking to have the military campaign in Libya declared illegal. What effect will that have?

HORSLEY: Well, if the case goes forward it means the courts may get a chance to weigh in on this long-running debate. That is, if the facts on the ground in Libya don't change to make this a moot argument.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure.

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