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Column in Wall Street Journal : The President's Welcome Overture to Congress

More White House cooperation on drone policy and fighting terror is good—and overdue.

Washington, May 28, 2013
May 27, 2013, 7:11 p.m. ET


Last week, President Obama laid out his revised vision for U.S. counterterrorism policy. The president mentioned that he looks forward to "actively engaging Congress" on oversight of counterterrorism operations. Though consultation and engagement by the White House on national security has been too rare, many of us in Congress welcome a new chance at cooperation.

More than a decade after Sept. 11, 2001, it is clear that the terrorist threat has changed and so have the tools and approaches to countering it. In particular, the menace of al Qaeda's affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa has increased.

As national-security threats evolve, the government is constantly challenged to update its authority and oversight in a way that is consistent with the Constitution yet also relevant to modern technologies and its uses. Recently, for example, much has been written about the use and oversight of armed drones in counterterrorism.

Even as the government works to keep Americans safe from evolving terrorist threats, it must also ensure that every action is taken in a manner consistent with the nation's civil liberties and freedoms. This balance can be achieved only with proper oversight and accountability. It is Congress's job to provide both.

After the 9/11 attacks, Congress authorized President Bush to use "all necessary and appropriate force" against al Qaeda. Since then, U.S. military and intelligence professionals have very effectively shouldered prosecution of the war on the terrorists.
President Barack Obama delivers a speech on his administration's counterterrorism policy at the National Defense University.

But the conduct of war is not solely a matter for the executive branch. Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution grants Congress the responsibility to provide for and regulate the "common defense" as well as the authority to go to war. President Obama has outlined a new series of defense policies, but those policies are not the law of the land. That power—and responsibility—still rests firmly in the hands of the Congress.

As the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the chairman of its Subcommittee on Intelligence, Emerging Threats and Capabilities, I help oversee counterterrorism operations conducted by the Defense Department. The Armed Services Committee maintains extensive oversight of sensitive military operations, in particular of targeted lethal operations, but we have kept the majority of this oversight behind closed doors.

I believe that we in Congress can and should be more transparent about our active role in overseeing the executive's national-security activities. The American people need to know that their elected officials will hold President Obama and his administration, or any administration, accountable for their actions.

The Armed Services Committee has a long history of working cooperatively with the military to defend the country. Working with the military's civilian bosses, by contrast, has not always been as open or as cooperative.
When the president suggests that his administration has "expanded our consultations with Congress" and the attorney general says the administration has "provided an unprecedented level of transparency" regarding sensitive counterterrorism operations, I can only respond: We have a long way to go.

The White House's lack of consultation with the House and Senate is one of the key reasons I joined with 43 of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to sponsor the Oversight of Sensitive Military Operations Act.

The bill would require that the administration notify the congressional defense committees of targeted lethal and capture operations by the U.S. military overseas. It would require a report outlining all legal and policy considerations relating to the use of force by the U.S. military against terrorists overseas. The bill would also codify in-depth quarterly Pentagon updates for congressional defense committees on counterterrorism operations. The bill creates a before-during-and-after scheme of oversight.

In recent years some of these notifications have taken place—on an informal basis. Formalizing that process under federal law is long overdue.

Some have suggested that federal judges conduct oversight of such military operations. I disagree. There is no precedent for such a role and no support for it in the Constitution. Only Congress is given the power "to declare war" and "to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces." Only Congress is responsible for appropriating the funds used to carry out such activities. And unlike federal judges, Congress is directly accountable to the American people. We cannot outsource our responsibilities to the courts, or anyone else.

At the same time, close oversight enables Congress to adjust authorities to meet the nation's national-security needs. Congress must ensure that the U.S. military has the authority it needs to defeat enemies abroad and prevent them from reaching American shores. And that requires Congress to update its oversight mechanisms in response to the changing nature of warfare. In an unconventional war against an evolving and decentralized enemy, the oversight mechanisms must keep pace.

Mr. Thornberry, a Republican, is a U.S. representative from Texas.

A version of this article appeared May 28, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The President's Welcome Overture to Congress.