The government watchdog group United to Protect Democracy is suing the Trump administration to get its legal justification for the missile strike on a Syrian airfield last month, The New York Times reported.
President Trump on April 6 ordered a military strike on the Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians that U.S. officials say was carried out by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Days after the strike, Trump sent a letter to Congress saying the action fell under his legal authority to protect “vital national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
But the legal basis of the strike is still being questioned, prompting United to Protect Democracy to push the Trump administration to disclose its legal reasoning for launching the attack.
The group on Monday filed a lawsuit asking for the government to compel the disclosure emails, memos and other records discussing Trump’s legal authority to order the strike, which it requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The group sent FOIA requests to the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, the Department of Defense and the State Department.
A government agency has 20 days to respond to FOIA inquiry, including whether it would be complying with the request, a deadline that is rarely upheld due to backlogs in the system. The Protect Democracy Project submitted each of its requests on April 7, including asking for quicker processing of its requests for documents.
Aside from confirming the receipt of the open-records queries, each agency has not provided any documents. The defendants are “unlawfully withholding records,” the group said.
“We are all disturbed by Bashar al-Assad’s horrific attacks on his own citizens. But that cannot obscure the question of what the President’s legal authority was for the missile strikes, or whether he usurped power that belongs to Congress,” writes Justin Florence, United to Protect Democracy’s legal director.
In an essay announcing the lawsuit, the former White House lawyer under President Obama adds that, “Some countries may tolerate a head of state launching a new conflict without offering a clear legal justification, but we should not.”
The United Nations Charter, ratified by the United States, recognizes just two legal ways for a country to use force on another without consent: if the Security Council has authorized an attack or if it’s in self-defense.
U.S. administrations have long claimed a right in domestic law to make unilateral use of limited force overseas to advance U.S. interests.
Florence writes that the administration’s refusal to disclose the legal basis for its action suggests either that Trump “never rigorously made an assessment about the legality of the Syria strikes” or that the White House is just refusing to share.
“The only possible explanation for refusing to disclose a legal opinion would be to keep the American people and the Congress in the dark — to prevent informed debate and oversight of the President’s ability to take the United States into a new armed conflict with another country,” Florence states. “In our democracy, that is simply unacceptable.”
United to Protect Democracy is not the first group to push Trump to explain his legal rational for the strike. In April Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to Trump pushing him to produce “any detailed legal analysis or justification for that action under domestic and international law.”