Six National Security Questions Presidential Candidates Should Have To Answer

A lot of ink has already been spilled on Carly Fiorina’s … strange … focus in last week’s Republican debate on expanding the (already massive) Sixth Fleet as one of the concrete foreign policy steps she would take if elected. Whatever the merits of her proposal, at least it was specific. Thus far, the discussions of national security on the campaign trail — for both parties — have otherwise been reduced not only to generalized sound bites, but to preposterous caricatures of complex and multifaceted legal and policy issues, such as Donald Trump’s assertion that “we’re gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great and it will be so powerful that I don’t think we’re ever going to have to use it.” Big military = no national security problems. Got it.

Of course, as Lawfare’s helpful national security-focused transcript of last week’s debate underscores, some of the folks currently seeking the Republican nomination have said more (and more thoughtful) things on the subject, especially Senators Graham and Paul. But even they have largely been guilty of broad, sweeping generalizations — apparently preferring to distance themselves from their competitors on more politically sexy topics, like who will defund Planned Parenthood faster, or whose mom will look better on the $10 bill.

It certainly stands to reason that national security will (and should) factor heavily into the 2016 presidential campaign — regardless of who wins each major party’s nomination. But what’s far less clear is whether and to what extent there is meaningful daylight between most of the candidates’ positions on national security policies — both within the crowded Republican field and between the frontrunners within that group and Hillary Clinton (there is obvious daylight between Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders on most of these issues). So in a potentially futile effort to provoke a serious conversation about US national security priorities for the next administration, or at least to highlight the absence of such discourse, I offer six sets of questions that, in my view, anyone running for President should have to answer. After all, these are the kinds of issues that the next President will have to confront on and after January 20, 2017; and some of us voters might very well think differently about these candidates based upon their answers.

  1. Surveillance: In your view, does the USA Freedom Act strike the right balance between the government’s need to engage in terrorism-related foreign intelligence surveillance and privacy and civil liberties considerations? With section 702 set to sunset in December 2017, what conditions, if any, would you seek to place on congressional reauthorization of that authority? As President, what other reforms — either expanding or constraining the government’s surveillance authorities — would you pursue?
  2. The Separation of War Powers: Although it is impossible to predict how the situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq will evolve, to what extent would you push for more specific statutory authorization for any uses of military force against ISIL? To what extent would you continue to rely upon the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force to engage in hostilities not just against al-Qaeda and ISIL, but against other groups with increasingly tenuous connections to the 9/11 attacks?
  3. Cybersecurity: The Obama administration has faced widespread criticism for its failure to identify and/or prevent high-profile cyberattacks on particular government computer systems. As President, what specific steps would you take to better secure government IT and to assure the American people that the government is capable of safeguarding sensitive information?
  4. Military Detention vs. Civilian Courts: If President Obama is not able to close the Guantánamo detention facility by the end of his administration, would you seek to do so? Why or why not? In cases in which these options are legally available, what criteria would you want your administration to apply in determining whether newly captured terrorism suspects are prosecuted in civilian courts, tried by military commissions, or detained without charges in military custody?
  5. Transparency and Accountability: Are you satisfied with the current administration’s approach to transparency and accountability for its military operations overseas — especially its use of drone strikes as a counterterrorism tool? Insofar as you would continue these programs, would you seek to share more details about them as President with the American people and/or our allies overseas? Fewer details? Why?
  6. Civil Liberties: In general, are you satisfied with the manner in which current US policy and practice strikes a balance between national security and civil liberties? As President, what concrete steps would you want to pursue in order to better strike that balance?

I harbor no illusions that any of the candidates will actually answer these questions anytime soon. But consider this an open invitation to the campaigns and also the upcoming debate hosts — and a promise that we’ll happily publish the answers of any presidential candidate who responds (except, perhaps, Deez Nuts). 

About the Author(s)

Steve Vladeck

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security and Professor of Law at the University of Texas School of Law. Follow him on Twitter (@steve_vladeck).