Sen. Corker: 'Congress Needs Ownership' Over Covert Activities

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is pushing for a rewrite of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). It is the AUMF that was used by the George W. Bush administration to justify torture and warrantless wiretapping and it has been used by the Obama administration to defend drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. Senator Corker tells Audie Cornish about his objections to classifying certain covert operations.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the debate in Congress, and the country, over the use of covert action to protect America's interests abroad. In a recent opinion piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the lead Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote this: It is important to ask just how much of U.S. foreign policy is conducted secretly. That answer, unfortunately, appears to be too much.

Corker, among others, is pushing for a rewrite for the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, signed one week after the attacks of September 11th. It is the AUMF that was used by the George W. Bush administration to justify torture and warrantless wiretapping. And it's been used by the Obama administration to defend drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere. In fact, just today, we have reports of at least half a dozen al-Qaida members killed in a strike in Yemen.

For more on what Sen. Corker thinks should be done with the AUMF, he joins me now from Nashville, Tenn. Senator, welcome to the program.

REP. BOB CORKER: Audie, good to be with you. Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, you write that too much of U.S. foreign policy is conducted in secret. We just mentioned drone strikes, but what else are you talking about? Is this detention policies, surveillance?

CORKER: Well, I think the best recent example is that the Foreign Relations Committee passed out of committee on a 15-3 vote a policy towards the Syrian opposition, the vetted, moderate secular groups there, and how we might help them through arms. Instead of that policy actually being debated on the Senate floor and in the House, the administration has decided - it's on the front page of the New York Times, it's on NPR, it's in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal - instead, we are helping the Syrian rebels covertly.

And that, you know, goes around Congress. Even though it's being reported widely and people understand around the world that we're involved in this, it's being done through our intelligence agencies, so there's no public debate, no discussion with our citizens about what ought to happen. I just find that to be reprehensible.

And the fact is that, you know, it also is done for another reason and that is, for years, Congress has really not upheld its responsibilities relative to being a voice in foreign policy. I think you know the activities that are going on around the world today are being done with an authorization for the use of military force that was put in place on September the 18th, 2001. It was a 60-word authorization. And so, you know, Congress candidly hasn't been responsible.

On the other hand, the administration goes around dealing with Congress by doing so much of what it does covertly. Which means that it doesn't have to be debated on the Senate floor and the American people really are never a part of this discussion.

CORNISH: Now, Sen. Corker, some would some argue that this ever-increasing use of covert action has been an important part of counter-terrorism victories against al-Qaida. Do you agree with that?

CORKER: Oh, there's no question that it has. And I think the thing that pushed me towards the fact that I think Congress needs to have another authorization was my recent travels through Northern Africa, where you can see what's happening. I was there three or four months ago. We're obviously going to be involved for the long-term.

I think that, again, Congress needs to have ownership over this. But there's no question. I'm not - I am in no way questioning the fact that these activities are keeping us safe. I'm just saying as a matter of - and there are some activities that you're alluding to right now that need to be done covertly. I would say, on the other hand, when you're working in a country like Syria, which has been widely reported, you're doing it covertly to keep there from being any kind of public debate about it, to me that is damaging to our foreign policy efforts. Again, I support the policy of helping the vetted, moderate, secular Syrian opposition groups. I think we ought to be doing it overtly, not covertly. But I'm in no way taking away from the fact that many of our covert activities are keeping Americans safe, and I support that.

CORNISH: You've also written that post-9/11 there was demonstrated value for quick, decisive and precise action. And are some of your ideas, like having more periodic reviews, would this create a layer of bureaucracy that wouldn't help with covert action?

CORKER: Yeah. So I think there's a way to create a hierarchy where, you know, the president has certain capabilities that can be done quickly and efficiently when necessary. When they're going to be prolonged, then, you know, Congress needs to, in my opinion, be a little bit more involved. But I think there's a way to do that without in any way slowing down the quick response which we know is very, very important to our security.

CORNISH: You know, people would ask, you know, given the action that the Bush administration took under this provision, why do you and other Republicans think it's time to redefine these powers for this president?

CORKER: Oh, I don't - this has nothing to do, to me, with this president. I mean, we're talking with Democrats about the same thing. This is - I don't want this to in any way appear to be some, you know, group of Republicans who want to hamstring a president of the other party. It has nothing to do with that.

As a matter of fact, by the time we actually were to implement, quote, a new AUMF, you'd be close to the end of this president's term. I mean, my guess is this is a discussion that would take place over a couple-year period. So this should not in any way be looked at as something that's trying to constrain a president of a different party. To me it's about us as a Congress being responsible over these things.

And again, what you're seeing happen on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today with a Democratic chairman and a Republican ranking member, we're in the minority, but each month that goes by, again, we're trying to take more and more responsibility over our foreign policy. I think you know that the Foreign Relations Committee itself, not to make too big a deal about our committee, but it used to be a place where these kinds of issues were debated.

And foreign policy very much was conducted out of the Senate and out of the House. Over decades of both Republican and Democratic leadership and Republican and Democratic presidents, the role of the Foreign Relations Committee has diminished, I mean, tremendously over time. And all I would say is, is that I think our country functions best when the executive branch and the legislative branch are working together on these things.

But again, please know that I know that if we begin a discussion about these issues, it will take a long time to come to fruition. And I see this in no way as something that's in any way pointed at this administration. And candidly, I think there are those within this administration that would very much welcome Congress playing a different role than it has in the past.

CORNISH: Well, Sen. Bob Corker, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CORKER: Thank you. It's always good talking to you. Have a good day.

CORNISH: Republican Sen. Bob Corker, of Tennessee, is the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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