Judge Fast-Tracks Demand for Legal Basis of Syria Strikes

President Donald Trump speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, April 6, 2017, after the U.S. fired a barrage of cruise missiles into Syria in retaliation for a gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A federal judge ordered the State, Justice and Defense Departments to speed up their responses to a government watchdog’s requests for records on the legal justification for the Trump administration’s missile strike on Syria in April.

The U.S. military attacked a Syrian government airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles on April 6. The launch targeted the Shayrat airfield near Homs, Syria, and the Trump administration said publicly that it was in response to a chemical weapons attack initiated by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad on April 4.

“Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack,” President Donald Trump said during a press conference the day of the strike.

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the Tomahawk missiles targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage sites, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems and radars, adding that civilians were never meant to be caught in the fray.

“As always, the U.S. took extraordinary measures to avoid civilian causalities and to comply with the law of armed conflict,” Davis said in April.

Syrian state news agencies reported that nine civilians, including four children, were killed in the missile strike.

Protect Democracy Project Inc., a nonprofit government watchdog, filed Freedom of Information Act requests the day after the launch, seeking emails, memos and other documents from the State, Justice and Defense Departments about the retaliatory strikes against Assad.

The group specifically sought information on President Trump’s legal authority to launch the strikes, and asked for expedited processing of its FOIA requests.

While some components of the Justice Department granted expedited processing of the requests, they did not offer an estimated processing timeline.

The State and Defense Departments flatly denied the expedited processing requests altogether, court records show.

Protect Democracy sued in May, claiming 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.

In a 14-page opinion issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ruled that the State, Justice and Defense Departments must process the watchdog’s FOIA requests on an expedited basis.

“If production is unduly delayed, both Protect Democracy and the public at large will be ‘precluded . . . from obtaining in a timely fashion information vital to the current and ongoing debate surrounding the legality of’ a high-profile government action… namely, military strikes against the Syrian government,” Cooper wrote. “Being closed off from such a debate is itself a harm in an open democracy.”

However, the judge declined to order the agencies to produce responsive records by a specific date.

According to the ruling, Protect Democracy agreed to narrow its FOIA request to cover only documents about the legal justifications for the April 6 Syria strikes, instead of its broader request for records on the strike in general.

Cooper ordered the State, Justice and Defense Departments to file a status report about their ongoing search and processing efforts by July 28. Protect Democracy has until Aug. 2 to file a response.

Judge Cooper said the urgency surrounding the issue was clear, noting the “increasing U.S. hostility towards the Syrian government.”

Specifically, he pointed to U.S.-led attacks on pro-regime Syrian forces on May 18, June 6 and June 8 as well as the June 18 shooting down of a Syrian military jet by U.S. forces in his decision in favor of the watchdog group.

Cooper also cited a warning from the White House on June 26 that indicted another missile strike like the one on April 6 could be imminent.

“The recent escalation in hostilities between U.S. and Syria, plus indications from the White House that another chemical weapons attack may be in the offing, make it more likely that irreparable harm will result without expedited processing of Protect Democracy’s requests,” the judge wrote. “The potential for irreparable harm under these circumstances exists ‘because ongoing public and congressional debates about issues of vital national importance cannot be restarted or wound back.’ That is especially so, here, where the use of military force is implicated… Military strikes cannot be undone.”

Allison Murphy, counsel for Protect Democracy, celebrated the group’s win in a statement issued Friday.

“The President does not have a blank check to fire missiles whenever he wants at whomever he wants,” Murphy said. “While the Assad regime has committed horrible abuses, President Trump is constrained by the law and owes the American people an explanation of his legal authority for ordering these strikes — and for any new military strikes going forward.  This decision is a critical defense of Americans’ right to be a check on the executive, as an informed citizenry, on one of the most consequential decisions our government can make, the decision to start a war.”

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