Given the importance of tonight’s prime-time debate between US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we’re again running our list of vital national security questions we want to see both candidates answer. The list below was originally compiled by a group of Just Security’s editors and contributors ahead the Commander-in-Chief Forum that took place earlier this month. Unfortunately, that event didn’t provide enough opportunity to press the candidates for their stances on some of the most important issues that will face whoever takes office next January. So once again, here are the questions we hope to see the candidates wrestle with in front of what may be the largest audience in presidential debate history.
(As with last time, this list is by no means exhaustive. If you’ve got questions that you’d like to see asked, Tweet at us —@just_security — and we might add them to the list.)
An Afghanistan veteran who wishes to remain anonymous; David Cole, Just Security editor and incoming national legal director at the ACLU; Daphne Eviatar, Just Security editor and Senior Counsel at Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program; Ryan Goodman, Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security and professor at NYU Law; Rose Jackson, senior policy advisor for the secure partnerships initiative at the Open Society Foundations and member of the Truman Project; Jameel Jaffer, Just Security executive editor and founding director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University; Sarah Knuckey, Just Security editor and professor at Columbia Law School; John Reed, managing editor at Just Security and member of the Truman Project; Julian Sanchez, Just Security editor and fellow at the Cato Institute; Peter Singer, senior fellow at New America; Alex Whiting, Just Security editor and professor at Harvard Law School;Andy Wright, Just Security Editor and professor of law at Savannah University; Jonathan Zittrain, Just Security Editor and professor at Harvard University.
- How do you plan to decrease the rate of sexual assault in the military?
- Many veterans suffer from depression, anxiety, and PTSD because of their experiences in combat. What would you do to ensure that they all had access to high quality psycho-social services?
- Why do you think so many veterans are committing suicide and how can this be better addressed?
- If, in multiple surveys, veteran respondents have continued to show a preference for the VA health care system versus private care, why is there still such a strong push to privatize the VA?
For Mr. Trump:
- You have recently suggested that you would support the assassination, or at least removal by force, of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. Assuming that were for some reason a smart policy move but patently unlawful under international law including in violation of the UN Charter, would the fact that it was illegal make a difference to you and how so?
For Secretary Clinton:
- In your book, you state that you proposed to President Obama to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight Assad. Assuming that was a smart policy move but patently unlawful under international law including in violation of the UN Charter, would the fact that it was illegal make a difference to you and how so?
- Do you commit to uphold international human rights law in all U.S. national security and counter-terrorism related actions at home and abroad?
- If Russia is found to have hacked the election reporting system in any state during the election, how would you respond?
- Russia recently used an airbase in Iran to conduct bombing operations in Syria. And Russia has been cooperating with Iran more generally in Syria. Yet Secretary Kerry has been exploring ways for the United States to partner with Russia to fight terrorist groups inside Syria. Can Putin be trusted in these matters? If partnering with Russia is, in effect, US collaboration with Iran, is that a step that any President of the United States should take?
- You have advocated establishing a “No Fly Zone” or a “Safe Zone” inside Syria. What would be your response as President if Syrian or Russian military engaged U.S. forces that were enforcing such a zone? Would the United States shoot down a Russian plane? How can you assure the American people this would not escalate to a war with Russia, Syria, or Iran?
- The United States has so far been unable to broker a peace agreement or cease-fire, and has agreed to accept only 10,000 Syrian refugees. What else should the U.S. government be doing to address the humanitarian crisis caused by Syria’s civil war?
- Would you support the U.S. taking measures to secure humanitarian access of food and medical supplies to civilian victims? If yes, how can that be done without escalating the violence and risking a U.S. conflict with Russia, Syria or Iran?
- Would you accept more Syrian refugees in the United States?
- Would you support telling the American people how often their electronic communications are obtained by the government, and for what purposes?
- Some representatives of U.S. law enforcement have said that they would benefit from having hardware and software providers maintain access to their customers’ data and communications so that government can access information that might otherwise be wholly encrypted. In turn, some political leaders have called on industry to undertake a “Manhattan project” to find a solution that keeps Americans safe but also maintains the integrity of encryption. If the tech community ends up coming back with a resounding no to the desirability and feasibility of “secure back doors,” especially ones that would work for the United States but somehow not for, say, China, are you prepared to let the companies devise their products to be as secure as they please for the public, including use of encryption that is as secure as possible?
- We recently learned that hackers (believed to be Russian-sponsored by many experts) had stolen NSA hacking tools that could be used to compromise networking equipment used by thousands of major American companies. The intelligence community had known about these severe vulnerabilities for at least three years, but kept them for their own use instead of notifying the manufacturers. Does this suggest a problem with the so-called “vulnerability equities process” that the government uses to decide when such vulnerabilities should be disclosed to businesses? How would you reform that process?
- The NSA, on US soil, collects millions of Internet communications between foreigners and Americans each year under section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. Currently, the FBI can search a large portion of that huge database for Americans’ chats and emails without a warrant, or even keeping track of how often they do this. Would you consider requiring a warrant for these warrantless “backdoor searches,” or at least mandate public reporting on how often they occur?
- After the Snowden disclosures, there was broad support for reform of the surveillance laws. Congress enacted the USA Freedom Act last summer. Do you think the reforms in that act went far enough?
Authorization for Use of Force, counter-terrorism, and executive powers
- You have supported the idea of having Congress pass an authorization to use force against ISIL. What authorities would you like to see given to you as Commander-in-Chief? Would the authorization be to fight ISIL anywhere in the world? Would it be limited to just ISIL or more broadly apply to terrorist groups more generally?
- Many, including Senator Tim Kaine, have suggested that the current congressional authorization to use force against Al Qaeda does not apply to ISIL, and that President Obama cannot rely solely on his own constitutional authority to fight ISIL without congressional permission. In terms of policy, having Congress pass a new authorization to use force against ISIL would show more resolve on the part of the United States and may be strategically wise. Regardless of policy, as a legal matter, do you think it would be beneficial, if not essential, for the President to have congressional authorization to use force against ISIL?
- What do you think the main causes of terrorism are, and how would you address them instead of just the symptoms of terrorism?
- How would you define success in the area of counter-terrorism, and do you think US counter-terrorism policy since 2001 has been successful?
- During the last two presidential elections, virtually all the serious presidential candidates answered New York Times reporter Charlie Savage’s surveys of their views of the President’s Executive Powers. Yet neither you nor your opponent have done so this election. Don’t voters have the right to know your position on the constitutional powers and authority of the President especially in matters of war and civil liberties? Why won’t you answer the survey?
- President Obama apologized when a drone strike accidentally killed two Western victims in Pakistan. Yet he has offered no apology for the killing of hundreds of foreign victims, equally innocent. Do you think the government should acknowledge and apologize when it accidentally kills any innocent civilian, or only Westerners?
- Is it ever acceptable to kill American citizens using unmanned vehicles such as drones? If so, when?
- How will you ensure that all past cases in which civilian harm has been credibly alleged are properly investigated and accounted for?
Military Commission/Terrorism Trials
- Hundreds of accused terrorists have been convicted in ordinary criminal courts in the United States since 9/11. Meanwhile the military commission system has hardly obtained any convictions, and the 5 self-described 9/11 plotters still haven’t been tried, more than fifteen years after the fact. Isn’t it time to do away with Guantanamo military commissions, and rely on the American criminal justice system?
- What is your position on whether the United States should join or cooperate with the International Criminal Court?
- What is your plan for achieving justice and accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide that have been committed in Syria and Iraq?
Partnering with Foreign Military Forces
- The US government has spent billions of dollars a year training, equipping, and otherwise supporting the military and police of more than 140 foreign countries to address threats to US interests. But even in places like Iraq, where we spent years trying to build a military virtually from scratch, our investments have not always proven successful. As president, what would you do to make sure US tax dollars were spent wisely and that US partnerships made the receiving countries and the US safer in the long-term?
- Should Ukraine become part of NATO. If so, on what timeline?
Yemen and Saudi Arabia
- Should the United States continue to arm and support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen given its widely reported humanitarian law and human rights law violations against civilians in that war? If you were President, would you stop the U.S. selling weapons to Saudi Arabia? If not now, at what point would you stop sales of US weapons?
- Should the US be developing fully autonomous weapons systems, aka “killer robots,” or not?
- Do you support an international ban on certain types of autonomous weapons systems?
- Is China a strategic partner or a competitor?
- How would you handle China’s moves to build artificial islands in the South China Sea?
Editor’s Note: Thanks to regular reader and Just Security contributor Chris Jenks for sending us these suggestions on our questions for the candidates.