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The Longest War: Rep. Barbara Lee's 20-Year Fight Against War In Afghanistan

Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., listen to Army Lt. Col. Danny Davis spoke at a discussion in support of expedited withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.; and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., listen to Army Lt. Col. Danny Davis spoke at a discussion in support of expedited withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

This is Part III in our series The Longest War.

On Sept. 14, 2001, Representative Barbara Lee was the only member of Congress to vote no on the Afghanistan war resolution.

“I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States,” she said at the time.

So how did the past 20 years change her and her country?

Today, On Point: Our series The Longest War continues with a conversation with Representative Barbara Lee.


Rep. Barbara Lee, representative for California’s 13th congressional district. She’s been in Congress since 1998. (@RepBarbaraLee)

Interview Highlights

I wonder if we could start with 9/11. How well do you remember that day?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “I remember it just as if it were yesterday. I was sitting in the Capitol early, meeting with the administrator of the Small Business Administration, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus and myself. I believe the meeting started at 8 a.m. And, oh, maybe 8:15, 8:20, 8:30, I received a call from my office saying I should leave the building right away and to evacuate. And at the same time, I heard the Capitol Police shouting to get out of the building immediately.

“I asked one of our phenomenal Capitol Police officers which way to go, what was going on. And he just pointed in the direction to run. And that was in the direction of the Supreme Court. So I ran over in that direction and up Pennsylvania Avenue. And I looked around, and I saw all of the smoke. I ran into one of my colleagues, and so he said, Well, come on to my house. And as we kept running up the street, kept looking back. And lo and behold, later we learned that was the plane that had crashed into the Pentagon.”

How did you learn about al-Qaeda and what the proposed response would be?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “Let me preface this by saying, members of Congress are also human beings. And we feel the same pain that constituents feel. And that everybody feels throughout the country when attacks and … people are harmed. And so the first couple of days, we had many briefings, intelligence briefings, some classified, some not. Within 24 hours, it was determined that it more than likely was al-Qaeda. And then the response, of course, was to begin to develop a response that would bring the terrorists to justice. And that’s when the authorization to use military force was drafted.”

Did you know you would be the sole no vote against the Afghan war?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “Quite frankly, I did not know. I knew that very few would vote against it. But I was settled in voting no myself, personally, during the memorial service. And I had talked actually to my predecessor, our beloved, the late Congressman Ron Dellums, who … in the past had chaired the House Armed Services Committee. I worked for him for 11 years. I spoke with several constitutional lawyers.

“I spoke with my pastor, my family. I talked to colleagues. And I was concerned that more members weren’t saying, I’m certain that I’m going to vote yes or no. I then decided at the last minute to go to the memorial service. I was talking with Congressman Elijah Cummings in the cloakroom, in back of the chambers, and I decided to go. And once I went to the memorial services and heard Reverend Nathan Baxter, I was really settled in my no vote.”

Did you receive blowback for that vote?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “Oh, my God, I got blowback to the point where I got death threats. I had to have security round the clock, couldn’t travel. Someone actually called my home phone and shot guns into the voicemail. It was horrible. My family was in jeopardy. The blowback was devastating. And also what it taught me was that many people don’t understand that even in times of the national security crisis, the right to dissent as a Democrat is central to our democracy.

“If one believes that our government is not taking the correct position, it’s our obligation to offer a different point of view. That’s what democracy is all about. An opponent ran against me. One of my opponents, a person who actually had called me and thanked me for the vote, then turned around and ran against me. And she marched in a parade in New York with Rudy Giuliani carrying a sign with me.

“And the sign had a picture of me smiling in front of the World Trade Towers burning. And the sign said, Barbara Lee hates America. And can you imagine what that generated against me? But, I have to go back to my faith. And being a Black woman in America, as Dr. Maya Angelou said in one of her beautiful poems, ‘And still we rise.’ And so I just had to stand, and just keep my faith and keep going.”

Do you think you were an easier target because you’re a Black woman in America?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “I think so. Black women have been easy targets throughout our history here. And even now, there are many issues, which I won’t go into, that people take me on for. Where other white members they don’t take on. They take me on because I’m an easy target. And so, yes. But also, I have to share a story with you, because this is the glass half full. Many know that I supported Kamala Harris for president. I was a surrogate, and went to South Carolina on one of my visits.

“And I was at a rally, and there was security there. And this white guy with a child comes up to me with tears in his eyes. A very tall, husky man. And he came right up to me and he said, Look, I was one of those who sent you a letter and threatened you. I was one of those who called you a traitor and committed an act of treason over that 2001 vote, that you were the only one to vote no. … And he was crying. He said, I wanted my son to see me apologize to you. He said, I am so sorry for what I did. And I came from some rural community in South Carolina to apologize and just say, Now I know why you voted no. And thank you.”

In the 20 years since your vote, how do you think America has changed?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “I think that it has changed America in many ways. First of all, I believe more Americans are aware of our foreign and military policy, our national security strategies, and how they’re related to our domestic priorities and their daily lives. I believe Americans really understand how much money and their tax dollars go to wars. And I also believe that the public understands that the threat of terrorism is real, and that we must do something to make sure our country is safe.

“… Now, I think Americans are beginning to recognize what we’ve known for many years. … That domestic terrorism and white supremacy is the No. 1 national security threat that we have. And that’s a fact. And some people are just waking up to that, and need to be extremely concerned about January 6th, and white supremacists and white nationalism and domestic terrorism. And so I think that now there’s an additional fear that people will have if they don’t know about it, if they aren’t aware of what took place January 6th.

“People didn’t know. It’s a very dangerous moment in terms of domestic terrorism. So you have now Afghanistan, Iraq, national security issues around international terrorism, more members of Congress, also, even those who focus only on domestic policy, now have a global and international perspective. And when I first came to Congress, let me just tell you, in 1998, there had been a survey conducted and it showed that 60% members of Congress did not have a passport. I think now we see ourselves as part of the global family. And now with COVID, what affects one affects all. And that’s extremely important.

“Also, I think that unfortunately, people are more skeptical of the government. And I specifically cite Iraq because we were told lies that there were weapons of mass destruction there. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Yet we went to war and sent our troops in harm’s way, lost thousands of troops, based on lies. Actually during that period, I would just parenthetically say, I had an amendment that said let’s just wait before we invade Iraq. And let the inspectors determine whether or not the weapons of mass destruction are there.

“I only got 72 votes for that. And had the Congress voted to wait, they would have learned. And the public would know for a fact there were no weapons of mass destruction. So I share that because I think the public is now more skeptical also. Which is really too bad, because they should be able to trust their government. But the government has lied to them too many times.”

In 2001, you quoted Rev. Nathan Baxter: ‘As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.’

Did the United States come close to that evil? How would you evaluate how we responded to 9/11?

Rep. Barbara Lee: “Once again, let me just salute on our troops, because they did everything their country asked them to do. A lot of what I do now is to try to make sure that our young people, our troops are made whole. What happened during the invasions, and the occupations and the wars, is that Afghan civilians and Afghan refugees — and the same with Iraqi civilians and refugees — their lives were destroyed in many ways.

“Maybe 240,000 people in Afghanistan were killed, millions of refugees. And we see this still now happening. And so we can’t forget that there was collateral damage. And that’s part of the consequence of war. And it’s been very, very tragic in many respects. And so we must move forward. And I say that once again, we have to recognize that we always have the military option, that’s always on the table.

“A president can always use force in terms of our national defense. But we should not see that as the only or the first option. When, in fact, we have other tools to use in terms of diplomacy, development and humanitarian assistance. And ways to really address the issues of war and peace, before a full scale war breaks out.”


This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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