Presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Joe Biden attends a foreign relations committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
Larry Downing  /  Reuters file
Presidential hopeful Sen. Joe Biden, D -Del., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is worried by President Bush's Iran rhetoric.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/25/2007 2:36:49 PM ET 2007-01-25T19:36:49

Democratic presidential contender Sen. Joe Biden said this week he’ll propose legislation that would put the Senate on record as telling President Bush he did not have authority to invade Iran or Syria.

But the Biden bill would also tell Bush, “You have authority under international rules to move in ‘hot pursuit’ to respond to direct attack,” Biden said Wednesday.

In recent weeks, members of Congress have fretted about Iranian activities inside Iraq. Members have pondered whether Bush has the authority to order U.S. troops to chase Iranians who are carrying out attacks inside Iraq if they flee across the border back into Iran.

Biden, who is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, signaled his qualified backing to "hot pursuit" in comments last week and the idea got stronger support from Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a staunch supporter of Bush’s Iraq policy.

The concept of “hot pursuit” is adopted from domestic law enforcement practice in which police chase a suspect across state lines.

“Let’s be careful here,” Lieberman said last week when queried about hot pursuit.  “We’re not talking about a ground invasion or an attack on Iran. I’m saying that if we have reason to believe that, over the border from Iraq into Iran, there are Iranians who are manufacturing the kind of bombs that are killing our soldiers and are training people to use them, then I think it would be irresponsible not to try to knock out that capacity.”

Go after fleeing Iranians?
Lieberman added, “If you have grounds to believe that Iranians are either running from Iraq, or are right over the border training Iraqis or supplying them with devices to kill Americans, I think the commander in chief has the authority of ‘hot pursuit.’ I’m not talking here about a big ground invasion. This is pursuing people responsible for the deaths of American soldiers.”

As opposed to an outright military attack on Iran, an action in hot pursuit of fleeing Iranians “is a much closer call,” said Biden last week.

He said it was “arguably true” that the president could order hot pursuit, but this week seemed prepared to go further by clarifying Bush's hot pursuit authority in legislation.

“But if that hot pursuit means that we end up taking out facilities in Iran, that’s not hot pursuit," Biden explained last week. "Even in our country, state police can move in hot pursuit against someone going across the state line, but once the person is across the line, he (the police officer) is not allowed to go in without a search warrant.” Video: Iran's war games

Biden said “the same generic principle” applies to U.S. troops chasing Iranians. “The idea of our armed forces literally in hot pursuit of someone who has just done something to damage an American force is one thing, and that literally means hot pursuit, it means immediately in response to the action taken. But if, all of a sudden, you start seeing sorties of aircraft moving across the border into Iran, that’s a fundamentally different issue.”

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a speech Friday that “The president does not have the authority to launch military action in Iran without first seeking congressional authorization,” but he did not address the hot pursuit scenario.

Is it legal?
A House Democrat who is influential on defense and intelligence matters, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., sounded wary about hot pursuit.

“I think we have to check that carefully,” she said Friday. “This right of pursuit has to be explored. We have to know what would be sound, from a legal point of view, on pursuing Iranians should they go back in to Iran.”

“It’s no secret Iran has been meddling in Iraq for years,” Harman added. “The most advanced form of IED’s are now these Iranian missiles which are very dangerous” and can penetrate advanced U.S. armor, she said.

And she said, “A lot of what the Bush administration has been doing lately has been needlessly provocative” because it prompts the Iranian people to rally around the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Addressing Iranian operatives inside Iraq, Bush’s national security advisor Stephen Hadley said on Jan. 14 that “the priority is what's going on in Iraq. That's the place where the (Iranian) activity is occurring. That's the best place… for us to take this on.”

When ABC News interviewer George Stephanopoulos said, “So you don't believe you have the authority to go into Iran?”

Hadley replied, “I didn't say that. This is another issue. Any time you have questions about crossing international borders, there are legal issues.”

MacArthur fired over 'hot pursuit'
In 1951, during the Korean War, President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur after he loudly advocated hot pursuit of Chinese fighter planes which were attacking U.S. aircraft operating in Korean airspace.

MacArthur wanted to pursue them across the border into Chinese airspace. But U.S. allies balked at this for fear of triggering a wider war with China and Russia. MacArthur persisted in publicly advocating the policy even after Truman had rejected it, which led Truman to dismiss him.

Concern about what Bush might do about Iranians inside Iraq was ratcheted up by the president’s Jan. 10 speech in which he said, “Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.”

During testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., sounded alarmed by Bush’s warning to Iran and told Gates, “I’m concerned about whether or not this would require U.S. forces to cross the borders into Iran and Syria.” 

Gates said “I believe it refers strictly to operations inside the territory of Iraq, not crossing the border.”

Clinton cites Iran and national security
After her return from a recent tour of Iraq and Afghanistan , Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., said, “We do have vital national security interests in Iraq,” and she made a point of adding, “We have vital national security interests with respect to what Iran is doing in crossing the border.”

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who was on that trip to the region with Clinton, said, “We face the problem of Iranians in Iraq who are actively involved in facilitating the killing of Americans. When we apprehend these Iranians we hear from the Iraqi government that ‘you have to let them go.’ That is not good enough.”

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