Syria Strike: Where’s the Legal Justification?

The following is a note from Protect Democracy Executive Director Ian Bassin.

April 7, 2017


Today, we’ve opened an investigation into an important issue for our democracy. Just now, we filed open records requests with seven national security offices demanding to know what – if any – legal justification President Trump relied on before launching military strikes against the Syrian regime. We’re also calling on the White House to immediately disclose the legal basis for the President’s actions.

We are all horrified by the atrocities that have been committed against the people of Syria for far too long. But however the United States responds to these brutal acts must be rooted in domestic and international law.

Over the coming days, there will be a lot of debate about the foreign policy merits of this strike and whether it will advance the interests of the Syrian and the American people. That’s a critical discussion and one we should all care deeply about, as we should all care about how we as a modern world prevent the kind of barbarity being perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad.

But we founded this organization to protect the pillars of American democracy from erosion. It is essential for that mission for the President to explain to the American people why he believes that he is acting within the legal constraints for the use of military force that are established by the Constitution.

Our founders wisely wrote into the Constitution a separation of powers precisely to prevent any President from unilaterally wielding the might of the world’s greatest military or marching the nation to war without the input or representation of the American people.

Over many decades, Presidents of both parties have pushed the limits of their powers, but any President taking military action must root it in sound legal authority derived from the Constitution or Congress. We want – and we are entitled – to know what justification President Trump used.

That’s why today we filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State, the Justice Department’s National Security Division and the Office of Legal Counsel, and we sent a letter to the White House Counsel demanding to know the President’s legal justification for this military action.

Using military force is one of the most consequential decisions that any President can take. As it currently stands, the American people are completely in the dark on the legal reasoning behind these strikes. If the Trump Administration is respectful of our Constitution, laws, and democracy, our investigation should produce a robust discussion of legal justification by the government’s lawyers. Then we should all be able to debate and question the Administration’s reasoning.

Of course, if our investigation doesn’t produce a robust discussion of legal authority within the Administration that will be even more troubling.

On the very anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, we cannot become a nation in which one man wields the most powerful weapons ever known outside of any legal constraints.

FOIA Requests

PD’s FOIA Request to DOJ’s Office of Information Policy

PD’s FOIA Request to DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel

PD’s FOIA Request to DOJ’s National Security Division

PD’s FOIA Request to the Department of Defense

PD’s FOIA Request to the Department of State