The White House is working behind the scenes to develop a strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Syria, a strategy that could include airstrikes and other military action there. But there are already lots of questions in political and national security circles about the legal authority the Obama administration might use to justify those actions.
In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress authorized the White House to use military force, broad authority to strike against Al Qaeda.
But Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says times are different now.
"The conflict has changed in a very profound set of ways, it's changed geographically, it's changed in terms of the groups we're fighting, and that document no longer really describes very well what it is we're doing," Wittes says.
For his part, President Barack Obama has notified Congress multiple times since June that he's sending military advisers to Iraq. The White House seems to be relying on a broad legal theory of self-defense, to protect Americans from fighters with the group known as the Islamic State. Those fighters overran territory near the U.S. consulate in northern Iraq.
"To have a solid self-defense theory, you either have to have already suffered an armed attack by the people you are targeting, either a state or a group of non-state actors, or you have to think they pose an imminent threat of armed attack," says Ashley Deeks, a former State Department lawyer who now teaches at the University of Virginia.
The legal analysis is complicated because now the White House is considering whether to broaden its air campaign to strike targets in Syria.
"The longer that the hostilities with ISIS go on, the more widespread they become, the more aggressive they become, the less this looks like scatter-shot incidents of self-defense and the more it looks like the kind of war-making that historically and constitutionally usually requires at least some buy-in from Congress," says Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University.
In letters and public statements this week, several members of Congress are demanding a say, a call the President says he hears.
"You know it is my intention that Congress has to have some buy-in as representatives of the American people. And, by the way, the American people need to hear what that strategy is," Obama said at a news conference Thursday.
Wittes, of Brookings, says that's not just the best legal approach - it also makes practical sense.
"It's not that the president can't do it without Congress but I do think having some degree of consensus in the form of legislation regarding what we are doing and what we're not doing would be a very healthy thing," Wittes says.
But with lawmakers positioning for mid-term elections in November, it's not clear either political party is going to want a vote on military action. That leaves President Obama relying on his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, powers he promised to limit when he ran for office years ago.
Vladeck, of American University, says the administration may be gun-shy about that approach for political reasons.
"Then it looks like there actually isn't much daylight between the very things that candidate Obama was complaining about back in 2008 and the conduct that President Obama seems on the verge of undertaking here in 2014," he says.
That's more reason, Vladeck adds, why the White House may be taking its time before making big decisions about military action.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and gutted most of its public schools. Even before the storm, the district was one of the most troubled in the nation.
Today, the New Orleans school system is unlike any other anywhere in the U.S. More than nine out of 10 students this fall are attending charter schools run by dozens of private, non-profit organizations. Families choose the schools their children will attend, and the neighborhood school is a thing of the past.
The NPR Ed team is beginning a yearlong examination of these dramatic changes: what they'll mean for New Orleans and the families, children and teachers there. Claudio Sanchez kicks off the series.
If you want to know how prison can shape a man, talk to Dan Huff. He's spent more than half of his 59 years locked up. He says he was "raised by the state of California."
"Even judges, when they would send me away — looking back at it now — they's kind of more like a father figure, sitting up there," he says. "Closer to fatherly than any father that I ever had."
Those judges had plenty of reason to be concerned about him — Huff used heroin. He committed robberies.
"I'd go to the spoon, and I'd get a pistol. Or I'd go to the hardware store and get a shotgun and a hacksaw, and leave a piece of that barrel in the parking lot," Huff says.
Huff has served time for robbery, prison escape, and manslaughter. He felt comfortable behind bars.
"I surrounded myself with other people, and we patted each other on the back, and told each other how swell we was," he says. "We was the real men — and everybody else is a slug or worthless or a mark."
About 2 million men are currently serving time in prison or jail in America. For many of them, incarceration has played a big role in shaping their sense of what it means to be a man. And for several former inmates now living in Portland, Ore., like Huff, being on the outside has meant forming a whole new definition of manhood.
'Prison Told Me To Be Hard'
Keith Moody served a few short sentences in his youth. But when he was 30, a drug trafficking charge put him away for a decade.
"It definitely ... gave me a lot of time to think," he says. "And I started saying, 'OK, I've been proclaiming to be a father, proclaiming to be a man. But the whole time, everything I ever done was for myself.' "
Behind bars, Moody enrolled in college classes, including sociology.
"It really just started opening me up, because it let me know, that's not me," he says. "I'm not a convict. I'm not an inmate. ... I am a man. And I have the potential to be much more."
The classes and the time definitely helped. But Moody says he didn't become the man he is because of prison. Nobody does.
"Those bars can't change you. Those guards can't change you. There has to be something in you that recognizes that change is necessary," he says.
Felton Howard spent a year in prison along with Moody. Prison is "not a rehabilitation center," Howard says. "It's a warehouse. That's what prison is, it's a warehouse."
For the past five years, he's worked at Portland's Reentry Transition Center, where he's helped thousands of former inmates. There's a lot of growing that these men have missed, he says.
"They find a way to fit in prison. But that doesn't mean that they've grown as a man — they're just growing older," Howard says. "My formula is, if you go into prison and you're 26, and you're there for 5 years, you might be 27 when you get out."
Prison doesn't just slow down your path forward. It can also set you back, says Emanuel Price. He was a college junior when he fell in with some old high school friends and got picked up for robbery.
Going to prison "was like throwing me into a lion's den," he says. "I'm not a lion, I'm not an animal. But here I am, surrounded by lions.
"Prison told me to be hard, not show your emotions, walk around with a frown on your face," he adds.
"It's Tough Being A Square'
That five-year sentence convinced Price to never make those mistakes again. Like Felton, he also works helping former inmates. But having to bottle up his feelings for so long, he says, made him a different man.
"And when I got out, I was just like, 'Everybody out here is soft. Why is everybody smiling? Why is everybody so happy?' And then I began to unpack those things, like, 'Wait a minute — I can smile!' "
For Price, that transition — redefining what it means to be soft, and what it means to be strong — happened because of friends and family. But it can also happen in prison. And slowly, it even happened to Dan Huff.
"There was just times, when, reading books and stuff, there would be things in there that would bring it to my attention that I was a fraud," he says. Huff started valuing people who were compassionate and honest, and trying to be that same sort of man himself.
It's hard work. Since getting out a couple of years ago, Huff's basically been figuring it all out from scratch.
Huff says. "There ain't nothing I've done that I had any experience of doing. It's traumatized me a time or two," he says. "Just little stuff, like being laid off from work, and bills come up. I had it all mixed up. And now I see that it's tough being a square."
But while dealing with hardships of daily life has been difficult — especially with a criminal record — it's that shift in thinking that's been the biggest change.
"It's devastating on the one hand, you've been thinking all this time that you're Superman, or God, or something. And now you find out you're not even a man."
And whether it's because of prison, or in spite of it, Huff and others like him are figuring out what kind of men they want to be.
While most of America is thinking burgers and swimming this Labor Day weekend, I can't stop thinking about earthquakes.
Last Sunday, a shaker registering 6.0 on the Richter Scale struck the Napa Valley in northern California. It injured dozens and caused about $1 billion in damages. National media coverage focused on how the quake affected the area's famous wine industry — because America needs to know that our stock of Cabs and Zinfadels is safe.
I, on the other hand, immediately remembered the Big One: the catastrophic quake that seismologists have long predicted will wreak havoc on Southern California someday... but no one knows when. So every little movement, every sway of a lamp or rattle of pans puts me on edge, makes me duck and cover. And after the Napa quake, I turned to Simon Winchester's excellent book A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 — you know, for some light reading.
The book was released on the centennial of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, which killed over 3,000 people and essentially leveled the city. Winchester details the devastation—houses turned into piles of sticks, blocks leveled by fires that followed, thousands left homeless for months. But the book's most terrifying passage takes place on the morning of the quake. Here, Winchester describes the calm before the disaster hit: "The breeze was westerly but light. Dawn was unfolding quietly, serenely. All was perfect peace."
Clichéd? Sure. But that's the scary thing about earthquakes: you never know when they're coming, or where.
Only one thing is certain: scientists say the San Andreas Fault that caused the San Francisco quake will unleash the Big One sooner rather than later. So I guess I'll just wait for it, and read and re-read Winchester's book again until then. Happy Labor Day!
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly in Orange County, Calif., and author of the book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Rick Scott, Florida's GOP governor, has come under criticism for his record on the environment, as the national NextGen Climate Action PAC runs TV ads attacking Scott. Now, as his re-election bid nears November, he's rolling out his own proposals for safeguarding the state's water and wildlife preserves.