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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

ROLC Files FOIA Requests Seeking Troop Numbers in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria

Just Security and the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on April 22, 2020 with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) seeking accurate numbers for U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria since December 2017. Just Security is represented in this request by the Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School.

In December 2017, DoD abruptly stopped disclosing troop numbers for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, despite a more than decade-long practice across the George W. Bush and Obama administrations of publishing these numbers, generally on a quarterly basis. Just a few months earlier, the Pentagon announced that then Secretary of Defense James Mattis sought to strengthen “the public’s understanding of America’s military commitment in Afghanistan” and renew DoD’s commitment to “transparency in its public reporting procedures” by instituting a more comprehensive accounting system for the number of troops serving abroad.

These unexplained Pentagon decisions leave Americans in the dark as to how many U.S. troops are serving in these conflict zones in their name, according to the clinic. The FOIA request asserts that without accurate information, the American people cannot exercise the oversight necessary to hold their elected officials accountable for their promises and policy decisions about war and peace. Furthermore, potential servicemembers — and their families — cannot know where they are most likely to be deployed on life-and-death missions when the scale of U.S. military involvement abroad is kept from the public. To restore transparency and democratic accountability on these vital questions, Just Security and POGO seek both quarterly counts of U.S. military personnel assigned to these countries and the underlying documents that explain why DoD withheld the numbers.

“Providing this information would be a show of respect for the American public, who ultimately must decide what sacrifices our country should make in sending troops into war,” said Ryan Goodman, co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense.

“The United States Government and all its institutions represent and are accountable to the American people. That was Secretary Mattis’ point. The public and those who serve and defend this country and their families are entitled to know where we are sending our service men and women, why, and the numbers,” said former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. “That’s democracy. The Government works for the people.”

The requestors are asking for the number of military and DoD Appropriated Fund (APF) civilian personnel assigned to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from December 2017 through the most recent quarter available. In addition to the number of U.S. troops present in these countries, the coalition requests further information as to how DoD calculates the number of military personnel by country. As the request explains, “Withholding this information from the American public undermines democratic accountability for the solemn decision to put troops in harm’s way and erodes public trust in government.”

“The Pentagon’s decision to keep troop numbers from the public is inexcusable and is just one example of the department’s regrettable war on transparency. The public deserves to know how many of its citizens are deployed and where in order to hold their government accountable,” said Jason Paladino, a national security investigative reporter at the Project On Government Oversight.

“Of all the things that DoD has done to limit public access to information, this is probably the most egregious,” said Steven Aftergood, Director of the Federation of American Scientists Government Secrecy Project. “The idea that the scale of the U.S. military presence in a war zone should be kept secret from the public is a mistake. That’s not how democracies fight or win wars.”

“These numbers have been publicly available for years, and there is no reason why they should now be hidden from public view,” said Nicole Ng ’22, a law student intern with Yale Law School’s Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic. “It is up to DoD to do the right thing in response to these requests.”

The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic team members who worked on this request are Key’Toya Burrell ’21, Annie Himes ’21, Preston Lim ’21, Michael Loughlin ’21, Nicole Ng, Sierra Perez-Sparks ’20, Josh Rubin ’20, Mary Ella Simmons ’20, and Brandon Willmore ’21. They are supervised by Professor Harold Hongju Koh and Phil Spector ’00.

The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic encourages a collaborative approach to addressing issues of national security, antidiscrimination, climate change, and democracy through litigation, policy advocacy, and strategic planning.

For additional information, please contact the Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic at teamclear@mailman.yale.edu.