An Appeal to Gen. Dempsey on Syria

Gen. Martin Dempsey,  Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, has spoken soberly about the dangers from any military strike on Syria, but press reports indicate President Obama is still set on launching cruise missiles in the coming days, an action that former U.S. intelligence professionals say should prompt Dempsey’s resignation.

MEMORANDUM FOR: General Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

FROM: Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

SUBJECT: Syria and Our Oath to Defend the Constitution

Dear Gen. Dempsey:

Summary: We refer to your acknowledgment, in your letter of July 19 to Sen. Carl Levin on Syria, that a “decision to use force is not one that any of us takes lightly. It is no less than an act of war.” It appears that the President may order such an act of war without proper Congressional authorization. 

As seasoned intelligence and military professionals solemnly sworn to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, we have long been aware that from private to general it is one’s duty not to obey an illegal order. If such were given, the honorable thing would be to resign, rather than be complicit.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In responding to questions on military options voiced at your re-nomination hearing on July 18, your letter to the chair of the Committee on Armed Services reflects that you acknowledge Congress’s Constitutional role with respect to U.S. “acts of war.” Equally important, you addressed these words to Sen. Levin: “You deserve my best military advice on how military force could be used in order to decide whether it should be used.” (emphasis in your letter).

The options your letter addressed regarding potential use of military force included five being considered at the time: (1) Train, Advise, Assist the Opposition; (2) Conduct Limited Stand-off Strikes; (3) Establish a No-Fly Zone; (4) Establish Buffer Zones; (5) Control Chemical Weapons. You were quite candid about the risks and costs attached to each of the five options, and stressed the difficulty of staying out of the Syrian civil war, once the U.S. launched military action.

‘Tailored, Limited’ Strike Option

Presumably, there has not been enough time to give Sen. Levin’s committee an equivalent assessment of the implications of the new option described by the President Wednesday evening as a “tailored, limited” response to the chemical weapons attack on August 21 that he has been told was carried out by Syrian government forces. President Obama said, without elaboration, that a retaliatory strike is “needed … to protect U.S. security.”

It is precisely this kind of unsupported claim (so embarrassingly reminiscent of the spurious ones used more than a decade ago to “justify” attacks on Iraq) that needs to be subjected to rigorous analysis by both the Pentagon and Congress BEFORE the President orders military action. For some unexplained reason of urgency, that order may come within the next day or two. With no wish to prejudge the results of analysis presumably under way, we feel it our responsibility to tell you now that, speaking out of several hundred years of collective experience in intelligence and national security matters, we strongly believe that the President’s reference to a military strike on Syria being “needed to protect U.S. security” cannot bear close scrutiny.

In all candor, the credibility of his chief national security advisers and his own credibility have been seriously damaged in recent months, giving all the more urgency and importance to the need for Congress to exercise its Constitutional role regarding war. And, as usual, there are serious problems with the provenance and nature of the “intelligence” that is being used to support the need for military action.

In your July 19 letter to Sen. Levin you emphasized: “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. … Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid. We should act in accordance with the law, and to the extent possible, in concert with our allies and partners.” (emphasis supplied)

This last sentence raises, first and foremost, the question of what the Constitution says of the role of Congress in authorizing a military attack that, in your words, “is no less than an act of war” (further discussed below).

It also raises the important issue of how seriously we should take the result of democratic Parliamentary procedures among our allies. Although not legally required to do so, British Prime Minister David Cameron on Thursday sought Parliamentary approval for military action against Syria and was rebuffed. With as much grace as he could summon, Cameron said the British people had expressed their will and he would not flout it (even though he could do so, legally in the British system):

“It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the government will act accordingly,” a tense-looking Cameron said immediately after the vote.

French President Francois Hollande has said his country may still strike Syria to “punish” it for allegedly using chemical weapons, despite the British Parliament’s failure to endorse military action. If Fiji can be lined up again, that would make a coalition of at least three.

The Fundamentals: Congress’s Role

Before the President spoke on Wednesday, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, Jerrold Nadler issued a formal statement titled: Constitution Requires Congressional Authorization on Use of Force Against Syria. Nadler wrote:

“The Constitution requires that, barring an attack on the United States or an imminent threat to the U.S., any decision to use military force can only be made by Congress not by the President. The decision to go to war and we should be clear, launching a military strike on another country, justified or not, is an act of war is reserved by the Constitution to the American people acting through their elected representatives in Congress.

“Since there is no imminent threat to the United States, there is no legal justification for bypassing the Constitutionally-required Congressional authorization. ‘Consultation’ with Congress is not sufficient. The Constitution requires Congressional authorization. 

“The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open, with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a Congressional vote. If the President believes that military action against Syria is necessary, he should immediately call Congress back into session and seek the Constitutionally-required authorization.”

As of Thursday, more than a third of the House of Representatives have spoken out against being marginalized, as they were before Libya, many insisting that there be Congressional debate and a vote before any military strike on Syria.

In addition, Republican House Speaker John Boehner sent Obama a letter Wednesday urging him to “make the case to the American people and Congress for how potential military action will secure American national security interests, preserve America’s credibility, deter the future use of chemical weapons, and, critically, be a part of our broader policy and strategy.”

The President called Boehner on Thursday to brief him “on the status of deliberations over Syria,” according to a Boehner spokesman, who added that, “during the call, the speaker sought answers to concerns outlined in his letter, including the legal justification for any military strike.” After the call, Boehner reportedly complained that his questions had not been answered.

Holding Congress in Contempt

Elementary school children learn that, in view of the Founders’ experience with English kings, it was not by chance that, in crafting the Constitution, they took care to give to our elected representatives in Congress the exclusive “Power To declare War [and] To raise and support Armies.” (Article 1, Section 8).  The somber historical consequences of letting this key power of Congress fall into disuse after WWII in effect, allowing Presidents to act like Kings speak eloquently to the folly of ignoring Article 1, Section 8.

And yet, there is no sign that President Barack Obama intends to request Congressional authorization (as opposed to “consultation” with chosen Members) before he orders military action against Syria. Indeed, he and his top appointees have been openly contemptuous of the Constitutional role of Congress in such matters.

Obama’s former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was smoother and more wise-old-handish than his predecessors in emasculating Congressional power. Thanks to Panetta, we have direct insight into how the Obama administration may strike Syria with very little consultation (not to mention authorization) from Congress.

Several of us remember watching you in some distress sitting next to your then-boss Panetta as he tried to put Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) in his place, at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 7, 2012. Chafing belatedly over the unauthorized nature of the war in Libya, Sessions asked repeatedly what “legal basis” would the Obama administration rely on to do in Syria what it did in Libya.

Panetta stonewalled time after time, making it abundantly clear that the Obama administration does not believe it needs Congressional approval for wars like the one in Libya. “I am really baffled,” said Sessions. “The only legal authority that’s required to deploy the U.S. military [in combat] is the Congress and the President and the law and the Constitution.”

Panetta’s response did nothing to relieve Sessions’s bafflement: “Let me just for the record be clear again, Senator, so there is no misunderstanding. When it comes to national defense, the President has the authority under the Constitution to act to defend this country, and we will, Sir.”

You will remember Panetta’s attitude, which Sen. Sessions called “breathtaking.” You said nothing then, and we can understand that. But, frankly, we are hoping that you had that awkward experience in mind when you reminded Sen. Levin that, “We should act in accordance with the law.”

Clearly, there is an important Constitutional issue here. The question is whether you will again choose to be silent, or whether you will give Secretary Chuck Hagel and the President notice that your oath to support and defend the Constitution precludes complicity in end-running Congress on Syria.

If, Resign

We do not understand why the White House has so far been unwilling to await the results of the UN inspection in Damascus, but we are all too familiar with what happens once the juggernaut starts rolling to war. However, if despite Thursday’s vote in the British Parliament and the increased opposition in Congress to war without the authorization of Congress, the President decides to order an attack on Syria, we urge you to act in accordance with your solemn oath to support and defend the Constitution, as well as your own conscience.

In such circumstances, we believe strongly that you should resign and explain your reasons at once to the American people.

Very Respectfully,

For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

William Binney, Senior Scientist, NSA (ret.)

Thomas Drake, Senior Executive, NSA (former)

Dan Ellsberg, VIPS Member Emeritus

Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan

Larry Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)

W. Patrick Lang, Senior Executive and Defense Intelligence Officer, DIA (ret.)

David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

Tom Maertens, Foreign Service Officer & NSC Director for Nonproliferation (ret.)

Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)

Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East (ret.)

Todd Pierce, US Army Judge Advocate General (ret.)

Sam Provance, former Sgt., US Army, Iraq

Coleen Rowley, Division Council & Special Agent, FBI (ret.)

Larry Wilkerson, Col., US Army (ret); Chief of Staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell

Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret); Foreign Service Officer (ret.)

21 comments for “An Appeal to Gen. Dempsey on Syria

  1. The_Black_Knight
    September 12, 2013 at 10:37

    What concerns me most at this point is when a President openly admits to the public by speech that he believes he has the authority to go to war with congressional approval, because he has the best interests in mind of the American people, I seriously begun to doubt any legitimacy, let alone the president’s credibility. I retired from the military for reason, as I could no longer accept be used as a pawn purely for monetary and political power.

  2. VivekJain
    September 2, 2013 at 03:00

    Intel vets and whistleblowers speak out.

    I have to note that the letter disappointingly marginalizes the public’s role in discussing foreign policy. It mention only Congress and the Pentagon. The letter focuses on Congressional authorization, when the signers damn well know that Congress will go along with whatever the warmongers want. (And even though the vast majority of the public disapproves of military attacks (attacks which would be a war crime), the American people have been exposed to a lot of propaganda over the past two years, and it wouldn’t take much for the policymakers to manipulate public opinion.) Also, the claim that “We do not understand why the White House has so far been unwilling to await the results of the UN inspection in Damascus” is unpersuasive.

    The letter reads: “The American people deserve to have this decision debated and made in the open, with all the facts and arguments laid out for public review and debate, followed by a Congressional vote. If the President believes that military action against Syria is necessary, he should immediately call Congress back into session and seek the Constitutionally-required authorization.”

    However, the intel vets don’t acknowledge geopolitics, don’t talk about Zionism, Saudi Arabia, Big oil/gas, the MIC, Wall Street. So who would introduce the relevant facts and arguments to the public? The very same people in Congress and the Beltway media who’ve lied to us?

  3. Masood
    September 1, 2013 at 10:12

    Where are all the military officers who were ready to resign because of the Iraq war during the Bush presidency? Oh wait! that was republican’s war. This is the war being waged by a democrat “Nobel Peace Prize” winner. What a joke of a president.

  4. anthony gomes
    September 1, 2013 at 00:31

    dempsey resign? dempsey is almost certainly one of the ones trying to push obama into this. bush was always saying in his speeches how the generals told him who to attack and he ordered the attack. bush obeyed anyone who had a certain amount of authority and obama is similarly compliant.

  5. Selma Sternlieb
    August 31, 2013 at 15:06

    I’m reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as this is happening. I’m impressed that a number of high-ranking generals in Hitler’s army were planning to arrest him when they saw that he was about to invade Czechoslovakia in 1938, because they saw the folly of his plan. If they had been caught, they knew, they would have been killed. Nevertheless, they felt that it was their duty to stop Hitler. It is the duty of Obama’s army to stop him now, and they don’t have to fear that they’ll lose their lives if they speak out. Surely, American generals can be as brave and patriotic as their German counterparts.

  6. Kit Kittredge
    August 31, 2013 at 13:27

    Please listen to the wise, sane voices of these professionals.

  7. M Henri Day
    August 31, 2013 at 13:14

    An excellent letter, but somehow I doubt that Mr Dempsey will find the requisite courage to make the uncomfortable choices outlined there. Exhibiting moral courage and following the dictates of the US Constitution and the Nürnberg Principles rather than the frequently illegal orders of their superiors have hardly been the career path taken by a majority of members of the US Armed Forces these last six decades or so….


  8. Mike
    August 31, 2013 at 09:29

    Previous comments have observed the terrible harvest we have reaped from decades of overreach by an imperial Presidency. GEN Dempsey has a chance to do something very un-American, but terribly British — resign in the face of an unlawful, unconstitutional, unnecessary and unethical order (of any kind) to go into Syria and start killing more people and breaking more stuff. Perhaps if more Americans, in uniform and in government, in private service, retired and uneployed, put down their tools and swords and pens and said “No More!,” we could take back this nation of ours from the uber-wealthy who act as if it is their own personal train set.

    More and more Americans are moving, retiring, fleeing overseas because they cannot stand by while they watch forty and fifty year old policies come to their logical and horrifying climax. Sometimes all that it takes to turn a tide is for one brave person to do the right thing.

    Every general officer I have ever met has said that rather than resign, they think that their best service to their troops is to stand with them and try to make things better for them in some mythical tomorrow to come. Either they are kidding themselves, or they are nothing but egoists in believing so.

    We used to say we were a nation ruled by law, not by whim. Obey the law, GEN Dempsey, and by your example demonstrate to every man and women in uniform worldwide (ours and everybody else’s) that at least one American military leader knows the law, hears it and obeys it.

    We know you won’t lose your retirement; you might lose some prestige, or fall out of place in some hearts while you are embraced in others. And you might never have to put up with yet another budget battle in the tank.

    Unfortunately, you cannot speak out more than you have already done, without repeating MacArthur’s sins. And you should not. But the monent such a patently unlawful order is brought to you by the National Command Authority, we expect you to do your duty.

    Refuse to obey it, and resign in protest.

    Make this the new American way.

  9. Bob
    August 31, 2013 at 03:47

    The lives of ordinary Syrians are as important as those of wall street moguls. Maybe claims of WMD by Bush were false; but had America acted quickly when Saddam was gassing his own southern populations maybe we would not have had any false claims of WMD. What if a crazy right-wing Government in Columbia used chemical weapons on guerrillas fighting to oust it?

  10. helenk2
    August 30, 2013 at 18:35

    Thank you for loving our country enough to remind people that they took an oath and should obey it.
    I do not know if Demsey will have the courage to resign if obama starts a war in Syria and help the side of the enemies of the USA. I pray he does

  11. F. G. Sanford
    August 30, 2013 at 16:37

    This open letter may one day be regarded as a significant contribution to the world historical record. Isn’t it ironic that events of this nature happen in the waning days of the summer heat? The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed in late August, 1939, and the Gleivitz incident conveniently occurred shortly thereafter. It was a green light to another famous ‘red line’ incursion. Carl Haushoffer’s doctrine of “Liebensraum” came to fruition on the heels of that false flag operation. Today, we are confronted with announcements of further expansion into territory aggrandized by aggressive war, though no ‘secret pact’ appears to be at play. Instead, we have reports of intelligence ‘cooperation’, which is admittedly less pathognomonic. But the aroma of collusion is no less repellent. There is little doubt about who benefits from any proposed intervention. It is troubling that justice belongs mainly to the victor. But if things should go wrong, this letter will become an irrefutable indictment. Conspiracy to wage war of aggression, as far as I know, is not shielded by statutes of limitation.

  12. MM
    August 30, 2013 at 16:04

    Every President since WW II has used non-Congressionally approved violence.

    Has the Iraq War lies finally been the catalyst that instilled some “Constitutional Religion” into the process?

    Are we tired of war? Yes. Do we want another war in Syria? No.

    I say “No” to attacking Syria.

    If they truly want to solve this problem, insist on everyone coming to the Peace Table. More violence isn’t a solution to the grievances of all concerned.

  13. Daniel Pfeiffer
    August 30, 2013 at 14:47

    An honorable letter, much worth the time to read. Will these words of wisdom and common sense be heeded? Or will be get further proof that the Imperial presidency is no longer answerable to the people.

  14. rosemerry
    August 30, 2013 at 13:38

    How the POTUS can pretend he is somehow defending the Mercan people (from whom and what??)by attacking Syria is never exlained. Even Obama’s previous claims that he should keep the population “safe” by these aggressive acts rather than defend the Constitution as is his obligation shoild not be accepted.

  15. B.C. Burkhart
    August 30, 2013 at 13:34

    I can’t help but wonder what a different world we would live in if everyone and every government could somehow learn to just mind their own damn business. If Syria presents a threat to U.S. security, look out, Canada could be next.

  16. TrishJ
    August 30, 2013 at 12:52

    We must stop allowing the President to act as though he is above the law just because he and his advisors say he is.

    The Constitution is very clear on the requirement of Congressional authorization for acts of war. Saying it isn’t so in the case of Syria doesn’t change that.

    Obama’s refusal to do anything about the Bush/Cheney unlawful invasion of Iraq laid the ground work for his own unlawful actions. Two wrongs do not make a right and we must restore the balance of power in our government and stop our rapid descent into totalitarianism.

    • Daniel Pfeiffer
      August 30, 2013 at 15:04

      Here here. By the time Obama leaves office, we’ll have lived through 16 years of a soul-crushing, justice-denying trashing of our Constitution. The criminals are in charge now by way of the new Imperial Presidency, and it becomes more painfully obvious with each passing day that they do not find themselves answerable to the people or the law. A big thanks to the reporters featured here, and to Robert Parry for providing the platform. This has been one of the only spots on the web to find rational, coherent analysis of what ails us.

    • Sam Conant, USN, USNE, USAR, VT-ANG (Ret)
      August 30, 2013 at 15:18

      While I am only one voice,I am not being one of the “silent left.” I’ve written to every national and state legislature whose email I have acs well as to more than 100 acquaintances,colleagues, family members, and friends around the country and overseas stating Syria is a Middle-Eastern and UN responsibility and Syria is no threat to the US. We must not put any boots on the ground, because we do not have a dog in that fight civil and cultural fight.

      • John el-amin
        September 1, 2013 at 17:09

        Bravo ! That statement of a hair’s width difference hit the nail on the head ! These folks making these awful decisions are leading the world toward a catastrophe.

        It would be very different if the children of all these players were in the mix ; there would be peace on Earth if the rich and privileged had to fight their own battles.

    • Anthony
      September 1, 2013 at 01:22

      Since the Vietnam era, what is needed to be remembered is that wherever foreign-policy is concerned there is only about a hair’s width of difference between a Republican and a Democratic administration. Be Well.

  17. Roy McBean
    August 30, 2013 at 12:42

    Syria presents no threat to the American people. There should be no violent action taken against them.

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