Rights group sues Trump admin for legal explanation of Syria missile strike

Rights group sues Trump admin for legal explanation of Syria missile strike
Government watchdog United to Protect Democracy has launched a legal complaint to force the Trump administration to disclose the legal basis behind the April 6 missile strike on a Syrian airfield. The attack could set a dangerous precedent, the group warns.

The rights group filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, Department of Defense and State Department, demanding that data relevant to the missile strike be released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Fifty-nine Tomahawk missiles were fired at Shayrat Airbase in Syria on April 6, killing at least six people and injuring several others. The move came in response to an April 4 chemical incident in the town of Khan Shaykhun, for which the US blamed the Syrian government, without providing any consistent evidence.

US President Donald Trump did not get the green light for the missile strike from either the Congress or the UN Security Council. Thus, the lawsuit says, Trump’s unilateral decision still requires a publicly-released legal rationale.

“Some countries may tolerate a head of state launching a new conflict without offering a clear legal justification, but we should not, ” United to Protect Democracy’s legal director and former Obama White House lawyer, Justin Florence, wrote on the group’s website. 

Protect Democracy wants access to all records concerning the missile strike under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This covers communications related to the matter from April 4 through to the present, including emails and memos. The agencies are to reply in 20 days.

“Any time we use force against a new adversary, it creates the potential for a prolonged conflict placing American lives at risk. When the Administration contemplates sending Americans into harm’s way, the public deserves a clear explanation for how our government is acting consistent with the law,” Florence stated

He added that initiating the strike without Congress approval can set up a precedent for “future actions elsewhere.”

Apart from Syria, Protect Democracy also mentions North Korea as a potential conflict area, citing the president’s words on the possible “major, major conflict” with Pyongyang.

The group pointed out that all the previous explanations were inconsistent, recalling Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s quote about “after-dinner entertainment” in relation to the strike, as well as Tump’s justifying references to chemical weapons and protection of national interests, among other statements.

The only official letter sent to Congress appealing to “vital national security and foreign policy interests” was described as “vague” and “worrisome” by Florence as it lacks legal recognition of domestic and international law and declares the possibility of additional action.

There was another precedent of bypassing Congressional authorization on military action, the watchdog notes. Back in 2011, the US intervened in Libya, but then the action was authorized by the UN Security Council and was followed by a detailed legal opinion from the Department of Justice to provide the rationale. And in 2013, then-President Barack Obama did not strike Syria in retaliation to alleged chemical weapons use, as the decision was not supported by Congress.

The refusal to shed light on the actions in Syria would have two “disturbing” explanations, according to Florence. The first suggests that Trump “never rigorously made an assessment about the legality of the Syria strikes” and had no legal guidance on the issue. The second implies the will to “to keep the American people and the Congress in the dark,” which could prevent “oversight of the President’s ability to take the United States into a new armed conflict with another country.”