89 former national security leaders call on Trump to not use active-duty troops against protesters

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Federal security forces in riot gear block 16th Street at I Street in front of the White House as the George Floyd and police brutality protests continue in Washington on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

Federal security forces in riot gear block 16th Street at I Street in front of the White House as the George Floyd and police brutality protests continue in Washington on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.

A long list of 89 prominent former senior defense officials, including four secretaries of defense, are voicing their opposition to any possible use of active-duty troops to calm protests and riots that have erupted across the country since the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man who died at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.

Both Republican and Democratic defense officials — including former defense secretaries Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Ashton B. Carter, and William S. Cohen — have signed an open letter urging President Donald Trump to rule out invoking the Insurrection Act, which would allow active-duty troops to assist the National Guard along with local and federal law enforcement agencies to curb civil unrest.

“As defense leaders who share a deep commitment to the Constitution, to freedom and justice for all Americans, and to the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to serve and protect our nation, we call on the president immediately to end his plans to send active military into cities as agents of law enforcement or to employ them in ways that undermine the constitutional rights of Americans,” the letter says. “The members of our military are always ready to serve in our nation’s defense. But they must never be used to violate the rights of those they are sworn to protect.”

The letter was written by former Army Secretary Eric Fanning, who served under President Barack Obama, and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, who was part of President George W. Bush’s administration.

Trump has made very clear that he feels active-duty troops should be called in to end rioting in cities across the country if local officials are unable to control the situation.

“If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump said on Monday.

While Trump has the legal authority to use the active-duty military to restore law and order, past presidents have traditionally invoked the Insurrection Act only after local responders were overwhelmed, the letter says.

Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy both used the Insurrection Act to have active-duty service members help integrate schools in the South, while President George H.W. Bush federalized the California National Guard during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of four police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King.

"Beyond being unnecessary, using our military to quell protests across the country would also be unwise," the letter says. "This is not the mission our armed forces signed up for: They signed up to fight our nation’s enemies and to secure — not infringe upon — the rights and freedoms of their fellow Americans."

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters on Wednesday that he opposed invoking the Insurrection Act because he did not believe active-duty troops are needed to help federal and local law enforcement agencies.

The following day, several hundred of the roughly 1,600 active-duty troops that had deployed to military bases around Washington, D.C., in case they were needed began returning to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

However, Trump was reportedly displeased with Esper’s comments about the Insurrection Act, and Politico reported on Friday that the president could replace Esper with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy or Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.)

So far, White House officials have not said whether the president still has confidence in Esper.

“If he loses confidence in Secretary Esper, I'm sure you all will be the first to know,” White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Wednesday.

Read the full text of the letter below:

President Trump continues to use inflammatory language as many Americans protest the unlawful death of George Floyd and unjust treatment of black Americans by our justice system. As the protests have grown, so has the intensity of the president’s rhetoric. He has gone so far as to make a shocking promise: to send active duty members of the U.S. military to “control” protesters in cities across the country, with or without the consent of local mayors or state governors.

On Monday, President Trump previewed his approach on the streets of Washington near the White House. He had 1,600 troops from around the country transported to the DC area, and placed them on alert in order, as he put it, “to ensure faster employment if necessary.” As part of the show of force that he demanded, a military helicopter made low-level passes over peaceful protesters – a common military tactic used to disperse enemy combatants – scattering debris and broken glass among the crowd. He then had National Guard members and federal officers use flash bang grenades, pepper spray canisters and, according to eye-witness accounts, rubber bullets to force lawful protestors, members of the press, and clergy members away from the historic St. John Episcopal Church, so that he could hold a politically motivated photo op there with members of his team, including, inappropriately, the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Looting and violence are unacceptable acts and perpetrators should be arrested and duly tried under the law, but as Monday’s actions in D.C. demonstrated, those committing such acts are largely on the margins of the vast majority of predominantly peaceful protests. While several past presidents have called on our armed services to provide additional aid to law enforcement in times of national crisis, among them Grant, Eisenhower, and Johnson, these presidents used the military to protect the rights of Americans, not to violate them.

As former leaders in the Department of Defense – civilian and military, Republican, Democrat and independent -- we all took an oath upon assuming office “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as did the president and all members of the military -- a fact that General Milley pointed out in a recent memorandum to members of the armed forces. We are alarmed at how the president is betraying this oath and threatening to order members of the U.S. military to violate the rights of their fellow Americans.

President Trump has given governors a stark choice: either end the protests that continue to demand equal justice under our laws or expect that he will send active military into their states. While the Insurrection Act gives the President the legal authority to do so, this authority has been invoked only in the most extreme conditions when state or local authorities were overwhelmed and were unable to safeguard the rule of law. Historically, as Secretary of Defense Esper has pointed out, it has rightly been seen as a tool of last resort.

Beyond being unnecessary, using our military to quell protests across the country would also be unwise. This is not a mission for which troops have been trained and equipped; it would put both them and their fellow Americans at great risk. Nor is it the mission they signed up for: to fight our nation’s enemies and secure – not trample – the freedoms of their fellow Americans. In addition, putting our service men and women in the middle of politically charged domestic unrest risks undermining the apolitical nature of the military that is so essential to our democracy. It also risks diminishing Americans’ trust in our military – and thus America’s security – for years to come.

As defense leaders who share a deep commitment to the Constitution, to freedom and justice for all Americans, and to the extraordinary men and women who volunteer to serve and protect our nation, we call on the president immediately to end his plans to send active military into cities as agents of law enforcement or to employ them in ways that undermine the constitutional rights of Americans. The members of our military are always ready to serve in our nation’s defense. But they must never be used to violate the rights of those they are sworn to protect.