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Case Study

Democracy Forward Foundation v. Department of Defense

Uncovering Whether the White House Consulted DOD Before Warning of Syrian Chemical Strike

On June 26, 2017, then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement warning of an imminent Syrian chemical weapons strike that, according to the White House, “would likely result in the mass murder of civilians” if conducted.

The warning—which occurred hours before Congress prepared for an uncertain vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act—claimed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was making “potential preparations for another chemical weapons attack…similar to preparations the regime made before its April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack.”

The White House refused to provide further information, and the allegation never materialized.

Following the warning, media reports revealed military and diplomatic officials were “left in the dark” and “caught off guard” by the White House claim. For example, one military official at U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for directing U.S. military operations in the Middle East, claimed he had “no idea” about the potential for a Syrian chemical attack. Another Administration official, a senior policy advisor at the State Department, claimed to have first heard the news from the Associated Press.

In light of these reports, we filed a Freedom of Information Act request in June seeking records from the Department of Defense (DOD) to uncover whether military officials were consulted prior to the White House statement.

After DOD refused to comply with the request, we sued.

“It’s distressing that President Trump still apparently believes he knows ‘more than the generals,’” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “In refusing to reveal whether the White House consulted military officials before warning of an imminent chemical weapons attack and threatening to put our troops in harm’s way, the Trump Administration is making our government less transparent and our democracy less safe.”

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