WASHINGTON (CN) – A government watchdog brought a federal complaint Monday for records on the legal authority President Donald Trump invoked last month to launch 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase.
Congress did not authorize the use of force against the Syrian government, nor did the UN Security Council adopt a resolution providing the legal authority for such action, Protect Democracy Project says in a May 8 complaint filed in Washington.
“Given recent military action in Syria and potential future military action in other new theatres, the Administration’s foreign policy, military, and legal agencies have an obligation to provide a straightforward, consistent legal justification for military action,” the 14-page complaint states.
The Protect Democracy Project says it filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Departments of Justice, State and Defense on April 7 – the day after the strikes – because of the Trump administration’s failure to explain the legal rationale for the military action.
“Does President Trump see any constraint on his ability to singlehandedly take the country to war?” Justin Florence, the group’s legal director, said in a statement. “The American people deserve to know. Either the administration is hiding its legal analysis or it never had one. Both options are disturbing.”
Though the president had previously opposed military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he framed the April 6 strikes as retaliation for a chemical attack his administration says Syrian forces carried out against its own people.
The complaint quotes a letter President Trump sent to Congress after carrying out the strikes, citing his constitutional authority to act in the national-security and foreign-policy interests of the United States.
“The April 8, 2017 letter does not articulate the domestic or international law justification for the strikes or identify any legal limits on the President’s perceived authority to take additional military action,” the complaint states.
Meanwhile administration officials have offered conflicting rationale for the airstrikes.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer cited humanitarian reasons, for example, and the campaign to defeat the Islamic State group. Spicer also said the Constitution bestows upon the president full authority to take military action when deemed favorable to U.S. national interests.
In contrast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of holding to account all those who commit crimes against civilians, while Secretary of Defense James Mattis said U.S. policy toward Syria had not changed.
No federal agencies or administration officials have since offered public statements or legal opinions explaining the legal justification for the attacks, according to the complaint.
The Protect Democracy Project says this goes against action taken by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in 2011, when it issued a 14-page opinion outlining the legal authority for military action in Libya.
The group also contrasted the administration’s use of military force in Syria with President Barack Obama’s refusal to take action against the Syrian government without congressional authorization.
“To resolve that debate, our Constitution divides war-making powers between Congress and the President,” the lawsuit states. “This is both to avoid a situation in which it is too easy for one person to initiate a war, and to ensure that the United States only goes to war when the people support doing so.”
The Protect Democracy Project claims the Departments of Justice, State and Defense – all defendants in the case – have surpassed the 20-day FOIA timeline for determining whether it will comply with the request.
Given President Trump’s statements that he might take further military action in Syria, and the possibility of a conflict with North Korea, the Protect Democracy Project says there is an urgent need for the public to better understand the administration’s assessments of its authority for military action.
The Departments of Justice, State and Defense declined to comment on the pending litigation.
The Protect Democracy Project is represented by in-house counsel Allison Murphy.