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Statement on the President’s Request for Authorization to Use Military Force Against ISIL before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Menendez, all the Members of the Committee, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be with you today on this important subject.

Before I begin, I'm sure you're all aware that a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was involved in an accident last night near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. We know there were four air crew – Army from a National Guard unit in Hammond, Louisiana – and seven Marines – assigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina – on board that helicopter.  And I know that with me, our thoughts and prayers are with them and their families as the search and rescue continues, just as I know we're all proud to have the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

That is why, at the end of my first week as Secretary of Defense, I traveled to Afghanistan and Kuwait, where I thanked our men and women in uniform for their contributions to important missions.

And in Kuwait, I talked with our ambassadors and our military leaders in the region about the campaign against ISIL. The trip confirmed for me that ISIL represents a serious and complex threat, especially in our interconnected and networked world. But it also confirmed to me that the enemy can be defeated, and we will deliver ISIL the lasting defeat. And I'm happy to share my thoughts about that campaign with you.

But let me turn to the subject of this hearing, which is the authorization for the use of military force. And in reviewing the President's proposed AUMF as Secretary of Defense, I asked myself two questions.

First, does it provide the necessary authority and flexibility to wage our campaign, allowing for a full range of likely military scenarios?

And, second, will it send the message to the people I'm responsible for – our brave men and women in uniform, and civilian personnel – who will wage this campaign, that the country is behind them?

I believe the President's AUMF does both, and I urge Congress to pass it.

And let me explain why I judged that the proposed AUMF gives the authority and flexibility needed to prevail in this campaign.

First, the proposed AUMF takes into account the reality, as Secretary Kerry has noted already, that ISIL as an organization is likely to evolve strategically, morphing, rebranding, and associating with other terrorist groups, while continuing to threaten the United States and our allies.

Second, the proposed AUMF wisely does not include any geographical restriction, because ISIL already shows signs of metastasizing outside of Syria and Iraq.

Third, the President's proposed authorization provides great flexibility in the military means we need as we pursue our strategy, with one exception: the proposed AUMF does not authorize long-term, large-scale offensive ground combat operations like those we conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan because our strategy does not call for them. Instead, local forces must provide the enduring presence needed for an enduring victory against ISIL.

And fourth and finally, the proposed AUMF expires in three years. I cannot tell you that our campaign to defeat ISIL would be completed in three years. But I understand the reason for the proposed sunset provision. It derives from the important principle stemming from the Constitution that makes the grave matter of enacting an authorization for the use of military force a shared responsibility of the President and Congress. The President's proposed authorization affords the American people the chance to assess our progress in three years’ time and provides the next President and the next Congress the opportunity to reauthorize it if they find it necessary. To me, this is a sensible and principled provision of the AUMF, even though I cannot assure that the counter-ISIL campaign will be completed in three years.

Now, in addition to providing the authority and flexibility to wage a successful campaign, I said I had another key consideration as Secretary of Defense, and that is sending the right signals, most importantly, to the troops. Passing the proposed AUMF will demonstrate to our personnel that their government stands behind them. And as Secretary Kerry explained, it will also signal to our coalition partners and our adversary that the United States government has come together to address a serious challenge.

We all took an oath to protect the nation and its interests. But to do so, we must work together. I know everyone on this committee takes the ISIL threat seriously. President Obama – and everyone at this table – does as well.

We encourage a serious debate. But I urge you to pass the President's AUMF because it provides the necessary authority and flexibility to wage our current campaign, and because it will demonstrate to our men and women in uniform – some of whom are in harm's way right now – that all of us stand unflinchingly behind them.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.