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Biden Lawyers Wrestle With Lack of Congressional Blessing for Houthi Conflict

The large-scale military strikes the United States has directed at the Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group in Yemen that has disrupted shipping in the Red Sea, has forced the Biden administration to wrestle over what it can do without congressional approval.

The question has helped fuel at least two major legal policy dilemmas, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations among national security lawyers: One is how a Vietnam-era law that was intended to limit wars that lack congressional authorization applies to the conflict, and the other is what to do with captured detainees.

On Thursday, a senior administration official offered the most detailed account to date about its view of the Vietnam-era law, the War Powers Resolution, and the Justice Department disclosed that it had taken custody of 14 prisoners the military had been holding for over a month.

Together, the developments shed light on what the Biden administration sees as the scope and limits of its power in the conflict with the Houthis, part of the widening regional conflagration that has spun out of the Israel-Hamas war following the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks and Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

On Jan. 11, the U.S. Navy captured 14 sailors off the coast of Somalia when it intercepted and sank their boat, which the government says was smuggling Iranian missile components, including a warhead, to the Houthis. Four of the detainees were arraigned in Richmond, Va., on Thursday — one on a weapons smuggling charge and three others on charges of making false statements. The rest are being held for now as material witnesses. All are believed to be Pakistani, an official said.

The military had been quietly trying to determine what to do with the sailors, hoping to relieve itself of the legal and logistical headache of holding the men as wartime detainees in an armed conflict that Congress has not authorized. Complicating matters, two Navy SEALs went missing in the nighttime operation to seize their boat and were later declared dead after a 10-day search.

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