ROLC & MFIA File Complaint Seeking Disclosure of U.S. Troop Numbers in Conflict Zones

The Yale Law School Peter Gruber Rule of Law Clinic (ROLC) and the Media Freedom and Information Access (MFIA) Clinic joined forces to sue the Department of Defense seeking information related to the amount of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The clinics filed the complaint on October 7, 2020 on behalf of Ryan Goodman '99, the founding co-editor of the national security website, Just Security.

Goodman and Just Security filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in April, with the assistance of ROLC, seeking information on the troops’ numbers. These figures were previously published on a quarterly basis for years under both Republican and Democratic administrations — until the Trump administration abruptly stopped disclosing them in December of 2017. They provided accurate counts of U.S. civilian and military personnel serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, and eventually, Syria. These consistently released numbers helped journalists compare them over time to maintain accuracy. Goodman wrote on October 7 in the Washington Post that there is now a “newfangled accounting practice that neither allows for true comparisons with past troop commitments nor insight into where American troops are being put in harm’s way. It also gives a false impression of a lower level of troop commitments, a political boon to Trump.”

According to the complaint, “this data served as a critical source of specific and consistent official information about the U.S. military’s presence in key combat zones. Transparency on troop levels has been essential for public oversight and accountability concerning the progress of military operations in the Middle East and South Asia.”

As the original FOIA request and new complaint explain, this information on the numbers of U.S. service members in conflict zones is particularly important now as voters prepare for the 2020 presidential election. During the 2016 election cycle, then-candidate Trump promised to withdraw troops from the Middle East, claiming he would put a stop to America’s “endless wars.” He has continued to make similar claims as President, yet has kept the troop levels hidden. The complaint stresses that, “if voters are to know whether the President is keeping his promises, they must know the number of servicemembers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. But the Trump administration is preventing this democratic accountability.”

Goodman observed that in addition to keeping journalists and the public in the dark about America’s military commitments, the lack of transparency prevents military members and their families from having a complete picture of where they may be sent on life-or-death missions.

“Accountability is foundational to democracy,” said Brandon Willmore ’21 a member of the ROLC. “The American people — and especially our heroes in uniform and their families — deserve to be informed participants in our country’s decisions about war and peace. This lawsuit is a critical step in guaranteeing that transparency.”

But as Goodman explains in his op-ed, “American voters don’t have the information required to evaluate Trump’s self-proclaimed record and the decisions he’s made over where and when to risk U.S. soldiers’ lives. The number of U.S. troops deployed over recent years and in today’s war zones is a key part of that assessment. It shouldn’t require a lawsuit to have this kind of information given to the American public.”

By Leah Ferentinos