MFIA and ROLC Succeed in Procuring Overseas U.S. Troop Levels from Pentagon

soldiers walking

The national security website Just Security announced the results this week of the successful efforts of the Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic (ROLC) and the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic at Yale Law School to compel the Department of Defense (DoD) to release information to the public on U.S. troop strength levels in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria since 2017.

Quarterly information on the number of troops deployed in these nations had routinely been disclosed during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, but those disclosures ended abruptly in the Trump administration. Although President Trump had made ending U.S. military involvement in these countries a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, his administration’s lack of transparency made it impossible to know if those campaign promises were being met, according to the clinics. Records obtained through litigation by the Yale Law School clinics and published this week by Just Security finally shed light on the United States’ troop commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria over the last three years. 

Ryan Goodman ’99, coeditor of Just Security, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request last April with the assistance of ROLC, seeking disclosure of the official troop numbers. After DoD failed to respond to those requests, ROLC joined forces with MFIA to file suit on Goodman’s behalf in the Southern District of New York. After several court skirmishes, and under orders from Judge Lewis Liman for DoD to expedite its response to the requests, DoD relented and made additional troop strength information available. It asserted that “actual” troop numbers were classified under a policy change directed by then Secretary of Defense James Mattis, but it did make public “estimated” quarterly troop strength numbers that had earlier been provided to Congress.

Access to this information is important for public oversight and transparency concerning the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and South Asia, according to the clinics. In addition to keeping journalists and the public in the dark about America’s military commitments, the lack of transparency for the past three years has prevented military members and their families from having a complete picture of where they may be sent on life-or-death missions.

“The results of our team’s work give a more complete view of our country’s troop commitments in the Middle East, something essential to understanding — and hopefully, in my view, to changing — the evolution of our Forever Wars,” said Sam Aber ’22, a student in the MFIA clinic.

CNN reporter Phil Mattingly used the newly-released information to question the White House about the disclosure of troop levels going forward, to which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki asserted the Biden administration’s commitment to transparency in this area. The lack of public disclosure during the Trump Administration also led senators to question Retired General Lloyd Austin about transparency during his recent confirmation hearing, where he made a similar commitment.

Yale Law students Annie Himes ’21, Nicole Ng ’22, and Brandon Willmore ’21 of the ROLC and Aber and James Fitch ’21, of the MFIA clinic, along with MFIA’s Craig Newmark Fellow Michael Linhorst, were responsible for filing the suit on behalf of Just Security against DoD.

“Transparency is indispensable to democracy, and that is all the more true of one of the most serious decisions a political leader can make — to place citizens in harms’ way,” said Visiting Clinical Lecturer in Law Phil Spector ’00, supervisor in the Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic. “The students’ work has been a critical step in the ongoing project of pulling away the layers of secrecy that now cling to these decisions.”

The MFIA Clinic at Yale Law School is dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work.

The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic addresses issues of national security, antidiscrimination, climate change, and democracy through litigation, policy advocacy, and strategic planning.

By Leah Ferentinos