Joe Biden’s War Powers

An examination of the president’s 50-year record on U.S. militarism, the CIA, and executive power.

Photo illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

If you went back and looked at every foreign policy decision Joe Biden made — every single one — would you be any closer to understanding him? This week on Intercepted: Our editor-at-large and senior correspondent Jeremy Scahill and reporter Murtaza Hussain examined the past 50 years of Biden’s decisions, poring over hundreds of pages of archival copies of the congressional record and reviewing declassified CIA documents for mentions of Biden. The investigation is called “Empire Politician,” and it’s the result of this painstaking research into Biden’s historical record. Jeremy and Murtaza also analyze Biden’s recent pledge to withdraw forces from Afghanistan by September this year.


[Introduction music.]

Jeremy Scahill: This Is Intercepted.

Betsy Reed: I’m Betsy Reed, editor in chief of The Intercept. 

No president has served in public office prior to his election to the White House longer than Joe Biden. He’s been at the center of America’s foreign policy decisions for decades, from the Church Committee’s reckoning with CIA abuses of power, to congressional debate over Reagan’s dirty wars in Central and South America, and the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Joe Biden’s career is a reflection of the evolving nature of American military power and the struggle between the executive and legislative branches and wielding the authority to execute that power abroad. 

Our Editor-at-large and Senior Correspondent Jeremy Scahill, and reporter Murtaza Hussain asked the question, “What if you went back and looked at every foreign policy decision Joe Biden made — every single one? Would you be any closer to understanding him? Does a Biden doctrine exist?”

Their resulting investigation is called “Empire Politician,” and it’s a detailed examination of the past 50 years of Biden’s decisions. This project is a result of painstaking research. In many cases, the historical record of Biden’s role in important episodes has all but vanished. Reconstructing it required poring over hundreds of pages of archival copies of the Congressional Record to find raw transcripts of his words. Jeremy and Murtaza also dug into the memoirs and biographies of government officials and reviewed declassified CIA documents for mentions of Joe Biden. 

You can find a link to “Empire Politician” encompassing more than 50 separate articles in today’s show notes. Intercepted Lead Producer Jack D’Isidoro spoke to Jeremy and Murtaza about this project.

JS: Joe Biden is an unprecedented president of the United States. There’s the obvious things, you know? At 78 years old, he is the oldest person ever sworn into office. And back in 1972, when he ran for the U.S. Senate, and wins, he ends up being sworn in at the age of 30, which made him one of the youngest people ever elected to the United States Senate.

Bob Clark: They gave a surprise party yesterday for Joe Biden who will make history because of his age when he takes his seat in the new Senate. If he stays in the Senate ’til the end of this century, he’ll be 57, the average age of senators now.

JS: What that means, especially in the internet age, is that we have this serpentine paper trail that follows Joe Biden into the White House: much of it is documented on the internet. 

Murtaza Hussain: And you know, a lot of information just kind of disappears after a while, it’s very ephemeral. So we had to do a lot of research beyond just what’s immediately available online, digging into transcripts and archives. The utility of this project, at least, is that it allows people to chart the contradictions in the positions of somebody who’s now the president. And this may give people a sense of how he may govern.

JS: As Maz and I started digging into Joe Biden’s history and looking at his positions, what we realized is that by studying Joe Biden, you can sort of study the growth — the expansion, the abuses, the mistakes, the victories — of the project of building American empire. And what you see is that Joe Biden has been at the center of some of the most consequential decisions made by the U.S. government to go to war, to conduct espionage operations across the world. And what emerges is a picture of Biden as a true empire politician.

President Joseph R. Biden: I am not culturally one of those guys who likes to — I don’t fit very well. I’m not a joiner. I don’t go out. I’m not very, I was out of sync with — by the time the war movement was at its peak when I was at Syracuse, I was married. I was in law school. I wore sport coats. I was not part of that. I’m serious!

So I find y’all going back and saying, “Well, where were you Senator Biden at the time?” You know, I think it’s bizarre. I think it’s bizarre. And then when the movement did catch up, I was a 23-year-old guy, married. And look, you’re looking at a middle class guy. I am who I am. I’m not big on flak jackets, and tie dye shirts. And, you know, that’s not me.

JS: Joe Biden’s view on the Vietnam War was not, “Wow, two million Vietnamese have been killed. 65,000 American service members have been killed.” Biden’s position on that war was that it was what he called “a tragic mistake based on a faulty premise.” So Biden enters the U.S. Senate not having been an activist on any domestic issues, not having been an activist on any of the premier global issues of the day. But he comes into a Senate that is just starting to grapple with the incredible damage that was done, particularly by Richard Nixon and his administration, but also a CIA that was out of control that was engaged in domestic spying inside the United States, was conducting coups and assassinations abroad. And Biden sort of gravitates toward the crowd of people in the Senate that were taking on questions of accountability for the CIA and “What is the role of Congress?” And so Biden ends up being an original member of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee which was established so that there would be oversight of the CIA and oversight of the executive branch.

Frank Church: Well, it’s a bill that would set up a permanent Oversight Committee, bipartisan committee, with a rotating membership so that it would not be preempted by the agencies that it is to oversee, with sufficient authority both to keep the secrets that are legitimate, and to investigate — and expose — wrongdoing when it occurs. We want to be sure that this country stays free. And that means that any spy agency continues to be outward-looking to spy on foreigners, but not to be spying on Americans or not to be trampling upon the laws and constitutional rights of American citizens. That would be its purpose. And in the long run, it would contribute to public confidence in the CIA, and make for an efficient intelligence agency operating within the law.

JS: Biden is very good at hammering on past mistakes of U.S. militarism or expansionism — the excesses of its agencies. He’s not so great at sort of addressing the potential for those things to happen as a result of U.S. policy. But he emerges early on in his career as a pretty passionate critic of not only the CIA, but the notion of the unitary executive. And it basically says: Hey, listen, Congress’s only job is to finance the national security policies that the executive branch, the president, determines are necessary for our national security. 

So what you see is Biden have, early on in his career, a front row seat to the great reckoning with the Nixon era, which then postures him in place to set policy going forward.

Marvin Kalb: The War Powers Act was an act of congressional desperation. It grew out of the agony of the Vietnam War, and of a series of unchecked presidential commitments of troops and treasure to a cause that failed.

Finally, in 1973, after the Watergate scandal weakened the White House, Congress summoned up the courage to challenge a sitting president. Based on its constitutional authority, Congress passed a joint resolution, which obliged the president to get congressional approval if he was to commit American troops to combat or, as the law puts it, “into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances.” The point was to stop the president from waging the twilight wars of modern time.

JS: One of the pieces of legislation that Biden signs on as a co-sponsor to in the first year of his Senate career is the 1973 War Powers Act.

JB: Does the Congress have greater flexibility to tell the president, for example: “Do not place any troops in Honduras, period; you are not authorized”? The President says it’s in our national interest to be in Honduras. The Congress says it is hereby declared by Congress that it is not in the national interest of the United States of America to place troops in Honduras or — let’s not pick Honduras, pick a country — in country X. And the president says, “I think it is in our national interest.” But we say ahead of time in the Congress, both houses of Congress; the President can veto it, obviously, the legislation, and it overrides the veto of the president, saying: “It is declared by Congress that no American troops should be placed in country X because it is not in our national interest.” Can the Congress do that?

JS: And what you see is that every administration from 1973 to the present has violated that law.

Ronald Reagan: Since 1798, there have been a few more than 200 military actions by the United States in foreign countries. Now, we have only been in five declared wars in our entire history. But the bulk of them, somewhere around 140 of them, were by American presidents that, on their own, put American forces in action because they believed it was necessary to our national security and our welfare.

JS: Biden becomes this really passionate, dedicated proponent of congressional authorities over the executive branch. When Reagan gets into power, the premier issues of the 80s were, on the one hand, Iran-Contra and, on the other hand, Reagan’s support for death squads and right-wing dictatorships in Central and Latin America,

Reporter: Considering what you’ve just said about Nicaragua and your past statements about how it is a staging area there, doesn’t the United States want that government replaced? And is there anything that you feel that we should be doing within the law to have that government in Nicaragua replaced with a democratic one?

RR: Of course, as I said, anything that we’re doing is aimed at interdicting the supply lines and stopping this effort to overthrow the El Salvador government. But what I might personally wish, or what our government might wish, still would not justify us violating the law of the land

Reporter: You’re not doing anything to overthrow the government there.

RR: No, because that would be violating the law.

JS: Joe Biden, on a rhetorical level, generally speaking on a political level, was a very militant opponent of Reagan’s policies in Central and Latin America, with one caveat: Biden consistently tried to find ways to support Reagan by getting him to agree to certain adjustments of policy or to link certain aid to human rights questions. Biden was willing to support Reagan’s aid to the Contra death squads in Nicaragua if there would be certain conditions placed on how the Contras would use that funding.

JB: I believe we have so botched this policy, so botched the opportunities to move on the Sandinista government, in a way that puts genuine regional pressure on them, genuine world pressure on them, I think we’ve made their game for them by not being very bright and smart about how we have gone about it — I understand, I just want to make sure we understand, the basis upon which we disagree. And that I understand that the sine qua non to your whole policy requires that military peace, and that you’re talking about that bringing about a result, hopefully, in the two-to-four-year timeframe, and I just think that that is not at all realistic, absent a significant — a significant — change in the amount of aid and what we’re willing to back that aid up with. I see no evidence to indicate that that’s not correct. 

JS: Some politicians say: “No money to the Contras, they are a death squad under any circumstances.” Not Joe Biden. He would say: Well, Reagan, I guess, has a right to try to finance this death squad. So let’s see if we can’t tinker with it and make it acceptable to me. That really is sort of the texture of Biden’s opposition to war. He, generally speaking, is all in favor of war, but he wants to tinker with it a little bit so he can feel like he got something out of it is world news tonight with Peter Jennings.

Announcer: This is world news tonight with Peter Jennings.

Peter Jennings: Good evening. This has been another important day for the history books. In Washington today, the Senate and the House of Representatives began debating one of the most fundamental responsibilities of Congress: the right to declare war. There is nothing President Bush would like more than resounding support for going to war, if the Iraqis are not out of Kuwait by next week. No one doubts the President can start the war, but there are certainly doubts in Congress about the timing, at the very least.

JB: What’s the hurry for war? What’s the hurry?

JS: Early on in his career, you see Biden start to say: “Well, you got to come to Congress, you have to respect the War Powers Act.” And in fact, it leads Biden to one of the most consequential decisions of the first part of his political career, and that is to oppose the 1991 Gulf War.

JB: Mr. President Bush, if you are listening, I implore you to understand that even if you win today 46-54, you still lose. The Senate and the nation are divided on this issue. Mr. President, President Bush, the debate to punish Saddam Hussein, the impatience you feel, the anger you feel, are all justified, but none of them add up to vital interest. And none of them — none of them — justify the death of our sons and daughters. First, commit this nation; then commit our troops. We will finish whatever you start, Mr. President. The sons of this generation are patriotic, as are the daughters. We will finish it. But for God’s sake, don’t start it unless you think it is a vital interest, which I feel strongly it is not.

JS: Well, soon after that war is launched. And, in a way, it was a made-for-TV war, it was largely speaking an air war, it became a very popular propaganda moment in the history of the American Empire. 

President George H.W. Bush: Five short weeks ago, I came to this house to speak to you about the state of the union. We met then in time of war; tonight, we meet in a world blessed by the promise of peace. From the moment Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 16, until the time that guns fell silent at midnight one week ago, this nation has watched its sons and daughters with pride, and watched over them with prayer. As commander-in-chief, I can report to you our armed forces fought with honor and valor. And as President, I can report to the nation: Aggression is defeated, the war is over.


JB: And so Biden then realizes he’s made a political mistake. He voted against a war that, in his perception, turned out to be a good war, a popular war. And at that moment, in the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War, you see the start of the transformation of Joe Biden into the very hawkish powerful senator that he would then be for the rest of his time in the United States Congress.

MH: At that time, it seemed to be logical, just from a cold-blooded political calculus perspective, that this war went well. The only big mistake was that people were saying was it was not taken far enough. And Saddam Hussain was not removed at that time, and the massacres of the Kurds and the other Iraqis in the aftermath of the war was considered a big failure. 

So, you know, he tried to overcompensate by being more hawkish, and then that led him to supporting all these other steps that ultimately culminated in the 2003 invasion, which he also supported. There was a groundswell of ideological support for the war, well before 9/11 and these other events conspired to make it practically possible. When the time came that there was a lot of political consensus favoring major U.S. military actions in the Middle East, Iraq just seemed like the most obvious target and target for which there had been the most preparation from a legal standpoint and a political standpoint.

JS: By the time 1998 rolls around, and the neoconservatives spearhead what would ultimately be a bipartisan move toward making regime change official policy. Biden was right there, front-and-center. In fact, Biden, at times, would say: Even if we have to go at it alone, we need to remove Saddam Hussein.

JB: I think you and I believe, and many of us believe here, as long as Saddam’s at the helm, there is no reasonable prospect you or any other inspector is ever going to be able to guarantee that we have rooted out — root and branch — the entirety of Saddam’s program relative to weapons of mass destruction. And you and I both know, and all of us here really know, and we have to face that the only way we’re going to get rid of Saddam Hussein is we’re going to end up having to start it alone. And it’s gonna require guys like you in uniform to be back on foot, in the desert, taking this son-of-a — taking Saddam down. [Scattered laughs.] You know it, and I know it.

MH: Biden characterized his support for the legislation leading up to the Iraq War as effectively a tool of preventing the war from happening or providing the U.S with more leverage, or the Bush administration with more leverage, to forestall an eventual conflict in Iraq.

JB: Saddam is dangerous. The world would be a better place without him. But the reason he poses a growing danger to the United States and its allies is that he possesses chemical and biological weapons, and is seeking with his $2 billion a year illegally skimmed from the U.N. fund for food, Oil-for-Food Programme, that he is seeking nuclear weapons.

MH: Of course, it didn’t work out that way. And, ultimately, his support of the Bush administration’s policies in the realm of the Iraq War helped facilitate that war.

JB: Some in my own party have said that it was a mistake to go to Iraq in the first place, and believe that it’s not worth the cost, whatever benefit may flow from our engagement in Iraq. But the cost of not acting against Saddam, I think, would have been much greater. And so is the cost, and so will be the cost of not finishing this job. 

The president of the United States is a bold leader, and he is popular. The stakes are high and the need for leadership is great. I wish he’d use some of his stored-up popularity to make what, I admit, is not a very popular case, but I and many others will support him. 

MH: He was sort of like the Democratic good cop to this endeavor, which is already underway, and which he’d helped to get underway and didn’t forcefully oppose when started. So after the war started going badly, he adopted these, you could describe them as liberal criticisms or oppositions to the war, which he was quite vocal and forceful about at times.

JB: There is no plan. We went to war with too few troops. We went to war unnecessarily. We went to war with these men and women ill equipped. They’re coming home ill served. It’s about time we have the courage to stand up and say to the President, “Mr. President, you have not only put us in harm’s way, you have harmed us. You have no policy, Mr. President.” I’m so tired of hearing on this floor about courage. Have the courage to tell the administration: “Stop this ridiculous policy you have.” 

We gave the president specific authority, which is our responsibility. It was to take down Saddam if need be. It was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. And it was to get compliance with the U.N. resolutions. Every one of those have been met. Saddam is dead; there were no weapons; and Iraq is in compliance with the U.N.. So if you want to be literal about it, his mission no longer has the force of law.

MH: You know in a completely neutral term, he’s very imperious. He has a very strong sense of himself as the leader or statesman in an empire. So he had these very bold and dramatic proposals, which were offensive to many Iraqis at the time, of partitioning the country, significantly redrawing the map and changing the composition of Iraq in the future, and he did propose a full partition on ethnic lines between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. 

JB: So you must decentralize. You must separate the parties within the context of a limited federal government. You must give them control over the fabric of their daily lives starting with their own physical security. If you do not do that, in my view, there is zero possibility. So when everybody says you need a political solution, ask them: What is their political solution, not their tactical suggestion? “What is the political solution?”

MH: He was throwing his ideas out there. He was criticizing Bush from the left. He was trying to downplay the fact that he’d supported the war beforehand, all in the effort of effectively positioning himself well for the next political test to come, which wound up being 2008 when he was the vice president for Barack Obama.

Newscaster: — Iowa is fiercely protective of its position in the driving seat of the White House race. It’s a role many voters take seriously, holding candidates to account, including this exchange with veteran Democrat Senator Joe Biden.

Iowa voter: Did you vote for the war? 

JB: I did vote. I did not vote for the war. No, here’s what we voted for.

Iowa voter: If you felt we were going to be there for 10 years, and we were going to have this kind of devastation, how on Earth could you vote for that war? I don’t understand.

JB: Want me to explain?

Iowa voter: Yeah, I do. 

JB: Well good.

MH: He’s managed to very effectively play both sides of the game at very important moments, and Iraq was a very difficult thing to be on the wrong side of, and he tried to make the best of it after it happened.

JS: For a politician who was an original co-sponsor of the 1973 War Powers Act, who repeatedly, throughout his career, tried to get people to take it seriously urged presidents to follow the letter of the law, who claimed it was one of his sort of bedrock principles, one of his key pieces of legislation that he believed needed to be upheld. When Joe Biden really, really wanted a war, his tune dramatically would shift, you know, whether Biden raised a ruckus over war powers or not, it almost always led to the same place, which was that Joe Biden supports American wars.

MH: And it’s because he’s been able to more or less effectively, retroactively, re-describe actions or characterize his own actions in a very flexible way. And his support for the 2003 Iraq War, which is very unpopular, he just found a way to try to characterize it as opposition to the war, when on its face, it wasn’t that. And effectively, I think that it just shows, you could say, a talent for politics, and politics is all about flexing the truth, or, flexing morality, and so forth. And he’s done that very effectively. And that’s part of why he is where he is today. 

JB: I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility onto a fifth. After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the vice president, as well as with Mr. Ghani and many others around the world, I concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war. It’s time for American troops to come home.

MH: There’s gonna be a very difficult situation coming up in the foreseeable future, when the U.S. continues drawing down its forces in Afghanistan and it becomes clear that the Afghan government and military they created over the 20 years of occupying the country are not capable of holding up the country itself, they don’t have sufficient legitimacy. It’s very likely provincial capitals are gonna fall to the Taliban in the months and years ahead. It’s possible that the capital city could fall, Kabul could fall to the Taliban. And this is going to be very embarrassing to the U.S., because it’s undeniable that this entire project and all the lives wasted and all the resources wasted will have been for no constructive purpose. It would be better off just negotiating with the Taliban in 2001, as opposed to setting up this gigantic edifice, which is now going to collapse in this very bloody spectacle.

It’s going to be something potentially, like the fall of Saigon, or what happened when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of their occupation and, within a few years, Najibullah, who was their puppet leader of the country, was executed in Kabul by groups which you would describe as forerunners of the Taliban?

So, effectively, that’s going to happen in the near future. So the question is: is the U.S. going to carry out airstrikes to prevent that from happening? Are they going to carry out drone strikes to prevent that from happening? Are they going to conduct raids? Are they going to continue trying to prop up the Afghan government from afar? It’s really unclear. It’s not very obvious. It’s not an easy decision, in one sense.

I think that the whole project in Afghanistan was such a disaster in the sense that if you’re going to stay there forever, just stay there forever. If you’re not going to stay there forever, you know that and everyone else knows that, you’re just forestalling and creating this gigantic catastrophe which is now on the verge of happening. I think that, inevitably, there’s going to be a very terrible and tragic scene which plays out in the years to come.

JS: While all of the attention is on the notion that Biden is ending America’s longest war, if you really read what Biden’s own military commanders are saying, and what they’re telling lawmakers to the extent that it’s been shared with us publicly, what you see is that military commanders are drawing up plans for how they’re going to continue what they call their F3 operations, or F-cube: find, fix, finish. Find the terrorist targets, fix their locations, and finish them off. 

And so what you’re starting to see is military commanders saying: We’re now reviewing options with the White House for how we can keep a force, maybe not inside of Afghanistan, but just outside of Afghanistan, so that we can respond to events inside the country. And I think that this is one of those policy areas where if a scenario that Maz, I think rightly says, as a possibility plays out, the Taliban fully consolidate their power in Kabul, and they run out the internationally backed forces there that have largely been surviving because of the U.S. presence, you could have Biden facing a situation where there will be demands for him to re-enter Afghanistan, not just in a kind of occasional, surgical strike, cruise missile drone strike, but to say, “you need to reverse course” and how Biden handles that is going to be really interesting. 

If this was the 1990s, you could see a scenario where Biden says: “Yep, we pulled out a bit too early, we’re going right back in to finish the job.” The political winds have changed. Questions of war powers, the war in Afghanistan, what Biden will do if his policy goes completely south, to me, they’re total wildcards now, and he’s facing a totally different political environment than any of those that have existed in other phases of his career.

MH: There’s not really a Biden doctrine in the sense of a hard and fast philosophy about the use of U.S. force or America’s place in the world. That said, he is a product of many, many generations of American leadership in the world. And he looks at the world probably quite differently for many people who are a generation, or two, or three younger than him. So he remembers the Cold War, he remembers many episodes and incidents that shaped his own career as a politician, or that were defining of America’s role in the world during his political career. So I think that he has a very long-term vision of where America was, and where it’s going. 

So how to prognosticate that into a doctrine that he would stick to in the years to come, I think it’d be quite difficult. But I just think it’s important to try to understand the forces that have shaped his own worldview over his very long career. And that may give us a glimpse of how we may seek to govern in the years to come.

JS: The events that have happened in Joe Biden’s personal life would destroy many people. Having this horrible, catastrophic car crash that he dealt with, where he lost not only his wife, but one of his children, and then Biden having to be at the bedside of his two sons as they recover, and their mother is gone. Their mother has been killed in a terrible car crash. And you could look at it and say: God, why did that guy then go on to become a senator and spend all this time on Capitol Hill? I actually was sort of impressed with some of what I learned about Biden’s personal story and his resilience. 

On the flip side, there’s a dark aspect to some of those qualities, and that is that Biden is a totally unapologetic, unrepentant empire guy who is an American nationalist, and he is almost never concerned about the death toll of non-Americans in war. His decision-making is almost exclusively guided by what is best for the shining city on the hill, what is best for American nationalism. And I think that some of the qualities that you hear described about Biden and his family and why people admire him so much, and his loyalty, it also exists in his defense of American Empire.

Biden is one of those “I will never apologize for America” guys. I think that that is sort of his nature wrapped into one. If you’re Biden’s friend, or his family member, he’s probably the greatest person you know; the most loyal, dedicated person you know. If you are a civilian in Vietnam, Biden doesn’t care about you. If you’re a sovereign country that’s about to have cruise missiles rain down on you. Biden’s question isn’t, “What children are going to be killed today?” His question is: “Is this good for American interests?”

What you can conclude is that this is an incredibly sophisticated politician, someone who desperately wants to perceive themselves as a force for good in the world, but whose definition of good when it comes to politics is exclusively about what’s good for the nation that I happen to have been born in, or that I happen to work for right now. And I think that’s Joe Biden in a nutshell.

[Credits music.]

Jack D’Isidoro: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted. You can follow us on Twitter @Intercepted and on Instagram @InterceptedPodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is me, Jack D’Isidoro. Supervising producers Laura Flynn. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. 

Until next time, I’m Jack D’Isidoro.

Join The Conversation