Retired Gen. James Mattis, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be defense secretary, will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday at 9:30 a.m. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, was set to appear before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, but his hearing was moved to Thursday. (You can read Just Security’s questions for Mr. Pompeo here.)

I surveyed our contributing editors, including former Pentagon lawyers among them, for questions they’d like Mattis to be asked.

Bio: Mattis, a retired four-star, led Special Operations Forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and later, as a two-star, led the First Marine Division in Iraq. He worked with then-Col. David Petraeus on the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and before retiring in 2013 served for three years as the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East. To become defense secretary, Mattis needs Congress to pass a waiver to get around a rule that states flatly, “A person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer.” Since the President-elect selected Mattis to be his secretary of defense, much has been made of  Mattis’s nickname: “Mad Dog.” First of all, it’s clear Trump loves it, and loves the image it suggests of an aggressive military man in the style of Gen. George Patton. Trump has played it up on numerous occasions. But Marines who served under him, civilian colleagues and military reporters are rankled that the nickname is being used so widely, and prefer to paint a more complex picture of the man. In addition to this not really being a moniker he goes by, the name “Mad Dog” is also misleading, they say. Although known “for his aggressive and decisive approach to fighting,” and his colorful quotes, Mattis is also considered a strategic thinker and is known to be extremely well read. Mattis reportedly fell out of favor with the Obama administration over Iran, which in 2011, were supplying their proxy forces in Iraq with rockets to help fight U.S. forces. The White House saw Mattis’s approach as too aggressive. But much has changed on the ground in Iraq, where now, both U.S. and Iranian forces are helping the Iraqis fight the Islamic State. While Mattis still sees Iran as the biggest threat to peace in the Middle East he said last spring, “There’s no going back,” on the nuclear agreement the Obama administration brokered with the country. Mattis also thought the Obama administration was underestimating the threat Russia posed, saying in May that Putin was trying to  “break NATO apart.”According to Trump, Mattis told the President-elect  that he “never” found torture to be useful, and instead, “always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.” The Washington Post reported last week that Mattis is already clashing with the Trump team over some of their picks for senior Pentagon positions, and that Mattis found out about their choice for Army secretary in the news. 


  1. Numerous military and intelligence leaders, including the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said that torture and other forms of detainee abuse are ineffective, violate American values and harm the United States’ national security.  So-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, are also unlawful under domestic and international law.  Do you agree that it is unlawful under international and domestic law and unwise to use such techniques?
  2. The current executive branch process for evaluating Guantanamo detainees to determine whether they can be transferred or ought to remain detained is conducted by a Periodic Review Board — a parole-style board comprised of senior officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, and State; the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Office of Director of National Intelligence. The process represents the best thinking of our national security agencies and departments, and is important for ensuring that the disposition of detainees is in our national security interest.  Will you commit to working to continue this process and transferring detainees who are cleared for transfer through it?
  3. President George W. Bush originally tried to close the detention facility at Guantanamo because he determined that it “became a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.” Five Secretaries of Defense, eight Secretaries of State, four National Security Advisors, five Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and dozens of retired generals and admirals have supported closing Guantanamo for similar reasons. Do you agree with these national security leaders from both sides of the aisle that closing Guantanamo is in our national interest?  
  4. As the U.S. supports its Iraqi partners retake Mosul, and supports operations to eventually retake Raqqa in Syria, it is expected that thousands of members of ISIS could be detained. This raises the question: Who will be responsible for imprisoning them, especially in Syria? If the US does not want the responsibility of holding large numbers of ISIS captives, who should do it? Would you counsel against bringing new detainees to Guantanamo?
  5. Do you agree that while civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force, minimizing civilian casualties can help further mission objectives, particularly in the context of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations?
  6. Would you ever direct DoD personnel to deliberately target and intentionally kill the family members of suspected terrorists, insurgents, or opposing combatants—family members who are not themselves legitimate targets under the laws of war? If you were asked by the President to take such action or ones like it, would you resign?
  7. Do you agree with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford’s assessment from July 2015 that “Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security”? If not, what do you see as the greatest threat to U.S. national security? What would you rank as the second greatest threat?
  8. If Russia sends its armed forces (or armed irregulars) into Estonia, how should the United States respond?
  9. Should the United States “take the oil” from countries in which it conducts military operations, such as Iraq or Syria? Or would that violate the laws of war prohibiting pillage?
  10. In 2015, the DoD identified climate change as an international security risk. Do you share that assessment? How should the United States act to mitigate the instability created by climate change?  
  11. What role should the Defense Department have in protecting civilian systems and networks against cyberattacks?
  12. If you knew that US arms sales to Saudi Arabia were likely to be used in the commission of war crimes in Yemen, would you call for a cessation of those sales?
  13. Under what circumstances do you think the United States should use military force against Iran? Do you believe the United States should have used force against Iran at some point over the past 15 years?
  14. If US military cooperation with Russia involved the United States providing assistance to the Russian military which would likely be used in the commission of serious violations of the laws of war, would you call for a halt to any such cooperation? How could the United States militarily justify cooperating with Russia in Syria knowing how the Russians have behaved in the bombing campaign in Aleppo and elsewhere?  
  15. Do you believe the US must “expand” its nuclear capability “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” as President-elect Trump tweeted? If so, what would that expansion include and how would it add deterrent value to the current U.S. nuclear arsenal?
Image credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense