Soleimani Senate briefing unacceptable

January 13, 2020

Within hours of learning that Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani had been killed by a U.S. missile strike, I issued a statement calling Soleimani’s death “a big victory for the safety of the American people.”

I believed that then and I believe that now.

What I also said in that statement was that I was “anxious to learn about the legal justification for this action, and look forward to being briefed by the Pentagon and the White House.”

I received that briefing on Wednesday, when officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA presented limited facts to all 100 senators in an underground, secure bunker used for reviewing classified materials. As you might have heard in the news, I believe the briefing fell short.

That was not at all what I expected. In fact, the briefing was entirely at odds with President Trump’s entire approach to the office he holds. Mr. Trump has shown restraint in exercising military power around the globe — more so than any other president in my lifetime.

He has also been more accessible to members of Congress than any other president I’ve had occasion to know. He responds to phone calls consistently and answers questions generously. He does this because he likes people, appreciates the separation of powers between the three branches of government, and understands the need for effective, open communication between the executive and legislative branches.

Those traits stand in sharp contrast not only to the media’s often unfair portrayal of him, but also to the approach taken by the government officials who briefed the Senate on Wednesday. The briefing fell short in two critical respects.

First, senators were left significantly under-informed as to the legal and factual basis for the attack on Soleimani. The underlying facts were more described than explained and in terms not much more specific than those gleaned from news media accounts. This matters because we were repeatedly told that the factual predicate for the attack obviated the need for any congressional authorization. Congress needs to be able to evaluate such arguments, and should never be required simply to accept the government’s talking points as a matter of faith.

Second, and far more distressing, senators were warned about the supposed dangers associated with publicly debating the appropriateness not just of last week’s attack, but even of any further, future military intervention against Iran. We were told that, if we were to engage in such a debate on the Senate floor, we would only embolden Iran, undermine the morale of our own military personnel and thereby imperil the security of the American people.

This suggestion is an insult to the Senate, to the U.S. Constitution and to the American people.

Under the Constitution, it is the prerogative of the legislative branch to declare war. Article I, Section 8 makes that very clear. As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, this is a sharp contrast from the form of government that we had prior to the revolution.

When we were British subjects, the executive branch — the king — had the sole power to take us to war. He didn’t need the Parliament to weigh in or support it at the outset. That was the Parliament’s job after the fact — after we had gone into war.

Hamilton explained in Federalist 69 that this is the reason why the war power was put into Article I Section 8, into the branch most accountable to the people at the most regular intervals.

When we send our brave soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines into harm’s way, we owe the American people the decent courtesy to follow the Constitution. We must debate and discuss these actions to make sure they can withstand the scrutiny of the only sovereigns in our republic — the American people.

For government officials to suggest that a debate on the Senate floor would somehow weaken America or embolden Iran is insulting. It is not acceptable for officials within the executive branch to come and tell the Senate that we can’t debate the appropriateness of military intervention against Iran. It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional and it’s wrong.

The powers we exercise in Washington are not ours. They do not belong to any politician or government official. They belong to you, the American people.

When we allow these powers to be exercised through the wrong branch of government and through the wrong process, we are not only betraying the American people, we are endangering their safety and the safety of our troops stationed overseas. When we don’t debate matters of war and peace, we don’t allow the American people (who will be most affected by these decisions) to weigh in. That is recipe for arrogance and overreaction.

I hope and expect that officials representing the administration will show greater deference to their own limited power, and the power of Congress, in the future. President Trump has shown such deference. Those serving in his administration should, too.

 Op-ed originally published in the Washington Times