A Democratic Senator is calling for the release of a memo detailing Donald Trump’s interpretation of his legal authority to wage war which the White House has kept secret for months.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia is worried the rationale of the seven-page document, written to justify a US missile strike on Syrian forces last April, could set a precedent for further military action without Congressional oversight.
The issue has been given further urgency in light of a major clash with pro-Syrian government forces overnight that may have left 100 or more dead.
In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, obtained by NBC News, Kaine wrote: “The fact that there is a lengthy memo with a more detailed legal justification that has not been shared with Congress, or the American public, is unacceptable.
“I am also concerned that this legal justification may now become precedent for additional executive unilateral military action, including this week’s US airstrikes in Syria against pro-Assad forces or even an extremely risky ‘bloody nose’ strike against North Korea.”
With only a few exceptions, past presidents have always released their legal justifications for military action since the Korean War.
On Thursday, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed concerns the US was being dragged into a broader conflict in Syria, according to Reuters.
Kaine, who sits on Senate foreign relations and military oversight committees, said the episode raised serious concerns about the open-ended US military presence in Syria.
“I am gravely concerned that the Trump administration is purposefully stumbling into a broader conflict, without a vote of Congress or clear objectives,” he said.
The US-led coalition said it repelled an unprovoked attack near the Euphrates River by hundreds of troops aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who were backed by artillery, tanks, multiple-launch rocket systems and mortars.
The incident underscored the potential for further conflict in Syria’s oil-rich east, where the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias holds swathes of land after its offensive against the so-called Islamic State.
Assad, who is supported by Russia and by Shi’ite militias backed by Iran, has said he wants to take back every inch of Syria.
Mattis described the attack on the US-backed fighters, who were accompanied by US special operations forces, as “perplexing”, but called the retaliatory US-led coalition strikes as defensive and limited in nature.
Asked whether the US military was stumbling into Syria’s broader conflict, Mattis said: “No. This is self-defence.”
“If we were getting involved in a broader conflict, then it would have had an initiative on our part,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon.
No US or US-backed forces died, but the US official who spoke anonymously estimated that more than 100 pro-Syrian government forces were killed in the counter-attack.