STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Let's follow up now on the fight over President Obama's power to deploy U.S. forces to act in Libya. In a way, this kind of debate is nonpartisan. Almost any president pushes against the War Powers Act, which requires him to seek congressional authority soon after sending troops into hostilities. Almost any Congress pushes back.
The White House says that it's confident the president followed the law when the U.S. military got involved with the NATO mission in Libya. Members of Congress and legal scholars are not so sure.
NPR's Carrie Johnson has our story.
CARRIE JOHNSON: Thirty-eight years ago, lawmakers passed the War Powers Resolution. Congress directed the White House to get permission within two months of starting hostilities. But when it came to moving against Libya in April, Mr. Obama took an unusual approach. Like a lot of clever lawyers, he found an artful dodge.
Mr. BOBBY CHESNEY (University of Texas Law Professor): The War Powers Resolution uses the word hostilities, which is key here, and does not define that term.
JOHNSON: That's Bobby Chesney. He teaches national security law at the University of Texas. He says Mr. Obama is relying on the fact that troops aren't on the ground in Libya to argue the U.S. isn't engaged in hostilities.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney played down the U.S. role with reporters this week.
Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Press Secretary): What we are doing in our support role in the NATO mission is providing intelligence, refueling and other capabilities that allow this mission to proceed effectively.
JOHNSON: Carney also played down the fact that U.S. drones are flying over Libya, carrying Hellfire missiles that have hit targets in the country about 100 times since the conflict began.
Notre Dame law Professor Mary Ellen O'Connell says the White House is playing word games.
Ms. MARY ELLEN O'CONNELL (Notre Dame Law Professor): I have no doubt that if we are using drones in Libya, armed drones, we are engaged in hostilities.
JOHNSON: And her view has got support from a surprising direction, including the top lawyers at the Pentagon and the Justice Department.�The New York Times�reported Mr. Obama rejected their interpretation of the War Powers Resolution and instead sided with the State Department and the White House legal office.
Bruce Ackerman, who teaches law at Yale University, isn't impressed with the White House analysis.
Mr. BRUCE ACKERMAN (Yale University Law Professor): The White House report is not a serious legal document.
JOHNSON: The whole episode has reignited a debate that began in the Bush years about cherry-picking legal advice to approve controversial programs like harsh detainee interrogation and government wiretapping.
But this White House says it listened to differing views before acting, and that Mr. Obama is well within his rights to be the final voice on legal positions.
Again, Jay Carney.
Mr. CARNEY: The actions being taken by the United States do not meet the threshold set by the War Powers Resolution and the hostilities phrase.
JOHNSON: This week, the House and Senate are considering measures that would give Mr. Obama leeway to use military assets in Libya for about a year, so long as no American troops set foot on the ground there.
There aren't any U.S. boots on the ground now. And the approval of Congress, even this late in the conflict, would make all the difference, says Yale University's Ackerman.
Mr. ACKERMAN: The founding fathers contemplated cooperation between the president and the Congress and gave the last say to Congress.
JOHNSON: National security experts say it all might've been easier if Mr. Obama had just asked back in April, before the political and legal debate intensified.
Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.
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