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Four Senators Question Legal Basis for Strikes on Houthi Missile Sites

Eisenhower
Crew of the USS Eisenhower prepare to launch a fighter for a strike on Houthi positions, Jan. 22 (USN)

Published Jan 23, 2024 10:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

Four U.S. senators have questioned the Biden administration's legal authority to launch ongoing counterstrikes on Houthi missile sites in Yemen, since Congress has not voted on a war authorization for the evolving conflict.

The signatories come from across the American political spectrum: Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).

"I am eager to hear from the administration about whether they believe there is existing authorization, but I can’t find one," Sen. Murphy told HuffPost on Tuesday.  

The U.S. military describes the counterstrikes as defensive measures, intended to thwart an "imminent threat to merchant vessels and the U.S. Navy ships in the region." The latest action occurred Tuesday, when American forces destroyed two Houthi missiles that were staged and prepared to launch. U.S. Central Command emphasized that the strikes were in "self-defense." 

Yemen's Houthi militants - recently reclassified by the White House as terrorists - have launched multiple drone and missile strikes on shipping over the past two months. Targets have included foreign-flag ships owned by Americans, and there has been at least one claimed attempt on a U.S.-flag vessel.

In their letter, the four senators agreed with the administration that the Houthi attacks are "unacceptable" and put lives at risk. However, most of the vessels targeted have been foreign-flagged, reflecting the composition of the global fleet.

Hole in the port side of the Greek-owned bulker Zografia, caused by a Houthi missile (Suez Canal Authority)

The senators questioned whether the president has the legal authority to defend mostly foreign shipping, overseas, without Congress' approval - especially if the exchange of fire starts to look like an "ongoing regional conflict." 

"Unless there is a need to repel a sudden attack the Constitution requires that the United States not engage in military action absent a favorable vote of Congress," they wrote. "Does your administration believe there is legal rationale for a president to unilaterally direct U.S. military action to defend ships of foreign nations?"

The four senators called on the administration to explain what it means by "self-defense" and to define its legal authority in writing for each strike going forward.