Twenty-Five (or so) Questions for Senate Hearings on Trump National Security Appointees

8 January 2017, 1402 EST

I used to be a Senate staffer, and one of the most interesting parts of my job was helping Senators prepare for hearings.  If I were a Senate staffer now, here’s hearing questions I’d recommend for President-Elect Trump’s national security nominees, Rex Tillerson (Secretary of State), General James Mattis (Secretary of Defense), and General John Kelly (Secretary of Homeland Security). These questions would serve as starting points for dialogue during the hearings and I’m sure would lead to other questions.

On Whether War Works:

  1. Over the past 15 years, we have used military force (or, as we used to call it, gone to war) in at least six nations in the Middle East and South Asia—Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As to the uses of force in each of those nations:
  • In what ways was it a success?
  • In what ways was it a failure?
  • What conclusions do you draw from your assessments of successes and failures?
  • What recommendations will you make to the President and Congress about U.S. strategy, including but not limited to use of force, in each of these nations?
  • What should our goals be in each nation?

  1. One primary goal in most of those uses of force (or wars) has been to defeat, eliminate, or disable terrorist/paramilitary non-state forces that are enemies of the U.S., specifically al Qaeda and its affiliates and the Islamic State. As to each of our wars against al Qaeda and the Islamic State:
  • In what ways was it a success?
  • In what ways was it a failure?
  • What conclusions do you draw from your assessments of successes and failures?
  • What recommendations will you make to the President and Congress about U.S. strategy, including but not limited to use of force, as to each of these terrorist groups?
  1. Over the last fifteen years, the U.S. has used historically unprecedented U.S. deployment of military force in the greater Middle East and South Asia by means of a wide array of strategies, from large scale invasion and long-term occupation (Iraq and Afghanistan) to strong but short air assault (Libya) to indefinite use of drones and special forces (Yemen, Syria, Pakistan). Do you agree that though some successes have resulted from these interventions, our long term strategic goals—defeat of terrorist organizations that are our enemies, establishing stable and peaceful states, reducing political violence, empowering regional nations to secure and protect people who live there, controlling the power of state adversaries, promoting democracy and human rights—have not been achieved and in some instances have been set back?
  • If you disagree, explain why the uses of force have been strategically successful.
  • If you agree that force has not achieved strategic goals, what are the implications of strategic failure of a wide range of types of military intervention in that region?
  1. What would the costs be of continued military intervention at current levels in that region—how much money would it cost, can our servicemen and women continue to sustain the burdens of multiple deployments, is it a disincentive to regional powers to act more responsibly? What are the benefits?
  2. What are the opportunity costs of continuing or increasing our levels of military engagement in the Middle East and South Asia? Does this take money away from other priorities? Does it compromise the capacity of our military to defend against other national security threats?

On Authorizations to Use Military Force and Congressional Action

  1. Members of Congress from both parties believe that new legislation is legally required to support U.S. use of force against the Islamic State and have proposed such legislation. Do you agree?
  • If not, what is/are the legal basis/bases for using force against the Islamic State?
  • If so, what provisions should a new AUMF have as to:

–definition of the organization against which force may be used;

–goals to be achieved by the use of force;

–geographic area within which force may be used;

–duration of the authorization;

–how U.S. forces may engage in Syria as opposed to other places;

–type of force used (for example, would ground forces be prohibited or limited);

–application of domestic and international law of war principles;

–assembling a coalition of allied nations against the Islamic State;

–long term responsibility of regional nations;

–continuation or supersession of other AUMFs;

–congressional oversight authority and presidential reporting obligations.

On Domestic Terrorist Attacks

  1. Since the 9/11 attacks, all successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been conducted not by more formal members of terror groups but rather by “lone wolf” attackers who radicalized and planned their attacks independently from the terrorist organizations. What would you recommend as a strategy for stopping these types of attacks?
  2. Semi-automatic, military grade firearms are increasingly the weapon of choice for domestic terrorists, whether motivated by Islamist extremism or not. Given the number of people who are killed by these weapons each year and the demonstrable risk posed by their availability to terrorists who will not be screened out from buying them by existing firearms regulations, do you think that restriction of semi-automatic weapons should be a high priority homeland security goal? If not, why not? If so, what do you recommend be done?

Questions for Secretary of Defense Nominee General James Mattis on Compliance with U.S. Law Prohibiting Torture, Targeting Civilians, and Appropriation of Natural Resources

  1. When you served in Iraq you acted promptly to stop torture and illegal abuse of detainees and hold those responsible accountable. Unconditional prohibition of torture was also part of the counterinsurgency manual you contributed to with General David Petraeus. President-elect Trump, and others associated with him, have supported returning to waterboarding U.S. national security detainees as well as subjecting them to other forms of harm that would constitute torture or illegally abusive treatment under U.S. and international law.
  • Does it remain your position that U.S. personnel are prohibited from torture and illegal abuse?
  • If so, what will you do to insure that U.S. personnel comply with these prohibitions as Secretary of Defense?
  • Does the prohibition of torture and abuse apply to U.S. personnel outside the military, such as the CIA, other intelligence agencies, or private contractors under the direction of U.S. military and intelligence?
  • If President Trump orders the torture and detention of detainees by U.S. military personnel, will you instruct the military to refuse to carry out that order?
  • If so and President-elect Trump overrules your instruction, will you resign?
  • What will you do if you learn that U.S. intelligence personnel, or other U.S. personnel not under your authority as Secretary of Defense, are violating prohibitions against torture and abuse of detainees?
  1. President-elect Trump also stated during the campaign that he would target civilian relatives of terror suspects and confiscate oil in other countries as part of his national security policy.
  • Do you believe these actions are legal/moral/in the best interests of the United States?
  • If not, what will you do as Secretary of Defense to prevent them?
  • If President Trump were to order you to instruct the military to carry out these actions over your objection, would you 1) instruct the military not to follow the President’s instruction and 2) resign if the President insisted?

Question for CIA Director Nominee Mike Pompeo

  1. Your four predecessors, including General David Petraeus, implemented orders prohibiting torture and abusive treatment of CIA detainees on the grounds that that it was illegal. Will you commit to continuing to enforce the existing prohibitions of torture and illegal abuse of detainees? If not, why not.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Protection Generally

  1. Many refugees and displaced persons fleeing from violence in Syria and other places are fleeing from violence at the hands of nations or terrorist organizations which are U.S. adversaries.
  • Doesn’t it promote our values and our interests to provide as much protection and sanctuary to these refugees and displaced people as we can? If so, what should we do to provide them aid and support in the U.S. and internationally?
  • Are you concerned that failing to adequate provide for these refugees and displaced people may lead them to the sort of desperation that leaves them vulnerable to extremism?
  1. In many of the nations in which the U.S. has intervened militarily, some human rights and humanitarian conditions have improved—for example, women’s rights and children’s access to education in Afghanistan have improved since 2001. How can the U.S. continue and preserve these advances in nations in which the U.S. is militarily present? What should the U.S. do to insure that these advances will be maintained after the U.S. military presence ends.
  2. Do you believe that human rights violations and humanitarian insufficiencies contribute to the generation of national security threats to the United States? If so, what is your strategic recommendation on how best cure these problems, either globally or in specific countries.



Climate Change

  1. Do you agree with science experts who have concluded that human activity, including use of fossil fuels, is contributing to the pattern of rising temperatures and rising water levels? If not, why not? If so, do you believe that reducing the threats created by climate change constitutes a national security priority for the U.S. If not, why not? If so, what do you recommend the U.S. do to protect against climate change threats?
  2. The Pentagon has concluded that climate change sufficient to threaten U.S. security is occurring, and has taken action that includes planning for climate-induced conflict and reducing the use of fossil fuels. (For General Mattis)—Will these military climate change policies continue under your leadership as Secretary of Defense? Why or why not? (For other national security nominees)—Do you agree with the military’s assessment that climate change is a security threat and with the actions the military is planning in response to its assessment? If not, what is the factual basis for your disagreement with the military’s climate risk assessment and actions?

On Israel/Palestinian Territories

  1. What should U.S. policy be on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories?
  2. Secretary of State John Kerry recently spoke at length on the conflict, advocating the oft-proposed two-state solution and criticizing the actions of Israel (particularly on the expansion of settlements in the West Bank) and Palestine (particularly on failure to control violence and extremism).
  • What is your reaction to Secretary Kerry’s recommendations—which do you agree with and which do you oppose?
  • If the two state solution is not the solution than what is the solution?
  1. Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Territories have stalled. Would you do anything to restart the negotiations and if so what.
  2. Do you agree or disagree with the relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as proposed by President-elect Trump and his nominee for the Ambassadorship to Israel, David Friedman? Are you concerned that the relocation would add to conflict between the U.S. and those sympathetic to Palestinians on the status of Jerusalem?

On Iran and the Iranian Nuclear Agreement

  1. Should the Trump administration rescind or continue the agreement reached by the Obama administration and the P5+1 stats with Iran, in which the Iranian regime agreed to suspend its nuclear program? Whether you support rescission or continuation of the agreement, explain what you see as the overall strategy for containing Iran’s development of nuclear capacity. If you support rescission, how would a new sanctions regime and use of force figure into a post—rescission strategy? If you support continuation, how should the U.S. respond to Iranian violations of the agreement or other Iranian provocations unrelated to the nuclear capacity issues?
  2. Iran presents a series of threats to U.S. interests, including but not limited to the development of nuclear weapons.
  • What would strategy would you recommend for protecting against these risks?
  • Is use of force a realistic or sensible option given the degree to which U.S. forces are already engaged and the costs and risks of war against a nation the size of Iran?

Treatment of Muslims in the U.S.

  1. There has been talk of a ban on immigration to the U.S. for Muslims and of requiring Muslims who are citizens and residents of the U.S. to register.
  • Do you think these actions would be legal, particularly in view of the constitutional First Amendment protection of religious freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law?
  • Do you think these actions conform to American traditions of respecting religious freedom and protecting individual rights?
  • Are you concerned that these actions would discourage Muslims from joining the U.S. military or from continuing to serve?
  • Are you concerned that these actions would lead to international backlash and hostility that would pose a threat to U.S. citizens and interests (beyond the harm done to those required to register)?
  • Are you for or against 1) a ban on Muslim immigration to the U.S. and 2) requiring Muslims who are citizens or residents of the U.S. to register?

Presidential Judgment

  1. Many Americans are worried that the President-elect’s lack of national security and foreign policy experience, as well as his well-known tendencies to be combative and provocative, will result in catastrophic security and international affairs decisions and policies. What can you tell the American people about the President-elect, and your relationship with him, that will reassure them that he will manage national security policies and decisions responsibly?
  2. The President-elect is famously a frequent user of Twitter, the social media tool that limits posts to 140 characters. What will you tell the President-elect about using Twitter to make statements about volatile, very conflictual security and international matters where life or death and war or peace are on the line?

Preparation for the Job

  1. Name the four most helpful people you’ve talked to for advice on how to do the job you’ve been chosen for since you were nominated and explain why each was helpful to you.