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In recent weeks, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., has come under fire for voting against an amendment which a Florida lawmaker says would give U.S. troops in conflict areas the right to "proactively defend themselves."
Talk show host Helen Glover took Cicilline to task earlier this month for the vote on the amendment to the military’s "rules of engagement." She was joined on WHJJ’s "Helen Glover Show" by Michael Napolitano, spokesman for John Loughlin, who was Cicilline’s Republican opponent in 2010. Loughlin, an Army lieutenant colonel currently serving in Iraq, is one of two Republicans seeking to knock Cicilline from the seat in 2012.
Monique Chartier, a columnist for the conservative Anchor Rising blog, also took aim at Cicilline, challenging him in a blog posting to explain his vote "without platitudes and with specificity."
Cicilline responded in a letter addressed to Chartier. He said that he joined 141 other Democrats and 18 Republicans in voting against the amendment in May "because it does nothing to change existing rules of engagement for American service members...."
Cicilline went on to say that "our men and women in uniform already possess the right to bear arms whenever they are in harm’s way. Furthermore, when they are instructed on the rules of engagement, our troops are explicitly told that nothing prevents them from using deadly force to defend themselves."
We wondered whether Cicilline was right when he said the amendment would do nothing to change existing rules.
U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, a Florida Republican, introduced the amendment to the 2012 Defense Reauthorization Act in response to conversations he’d had with troops in Afghanistan during a congressional visit. He told The Wall Street Journal that when he asked the troops if there was anything he could do to help them do their job better, they told him they "felt constrained" by the current rules of engagement.
Gerry Lynam, Mica’s legislative assistant, explained Mica’s amendment this way:
The military’s counterinsurgency strategy requires a soldier to "go through a whole checklist" prior to taking any defensive action, Lynman said, and soldiers lose "the ability to defend themselves."
"The purpose of this amendment was to have the military give them (troops) a little more leeway to protect themselves."
Mica’s amendment to the 2012 defense reauthorization act, passed in the House by a vote of 260 to 160. (Voting for the bill were 127 Republicans and 43 Democrats, including U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I. The amendment is now before a Senate committee.)
The amendment reads: "The Secretary of Defense shall ensure that the rules of engagement applicable to members of the Armed Forces assigned to duty in any hostile fire area designated for purposes of section 310 or 351 (a) (1) of title 37, Unites States Code -- (1) fully protect the members’ right to bear arms; and (2) authorize the members to fully defend themselves from hostile actions."
So, would change the current rules of engagement for troops in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq?
We asked three military experts. They all said no.
"The ROE (rules of engagement) never constrain a soldier’s right to self defense," said Gary D. Solis, an author, law professor and 26-year veteran of two combat tours in Vietnam. "You can always defend yourself. Always."
Solis has a Ph.D. in the law of war from the London School of Economics and formerly headed the Law War program at West Point. He now teaches several courses at George Washington University Law School and Georgetown University Law Center.
The "rules of engagement,’’ Solis said, are specific directives used by senior commanders to regulate the use of force in armed conflict. "They tell a soldier, Marine or sailor when he or she may use deadly force," he said.
Anyone who understands the rules of engagement, he said, knows that the troops always have the right to defend themselves.
"This (Mica’s amendment) is not a matter of protecting soldiers,’’ Solis said. "This is military ignorance combined with political opportunism."
Victor Hansen, a professor at New England Law in Boston, described the language in Mica’s amendment -- "to proactively defend" -- as "loaded" and so broad that it was impossible to define for a practical purpose.
"I’m not sure I know what that means," Hansen said, "nor am I sure that those who voted for the amendment could give a very clear definition of what it means."
If the amendment became law, we asked, would it have any effect on the troops in Afghanistan or Iraq?
"I doubt it," Hansen said. "This is so vague it’s not providing any clear guidance. I can’t see as it would have any practical effect on the ground."
We also talked to Francis J. "Bing" West, a former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs during the Reagan administration and award-winning author who lives in Newport. His most recent book, "The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan,’’ was published by Random House in February.
What did West think the amendment would do?
Nothing, he said, except to create years of "arguments among lawyers" over what it means.
To test the experts’ view that the amendment doesn’t change anything, we asked the U.S. Army press office: Do the current rules of engagement allow U.S. military personnel to proactively defend themselves from hostile actions?
"Yes," U.S. Major Jason Waggoner, an Army press spokesman, replied in an e-mail. "U.S. Forces always retain the inherent right of self defense. Nothing in the current Rules of Engagement (ROE) limits this right."
In summary, Cicilline said Mica’s amendment would do nothing to change existing rules of engagement for service members. The experts we consulted agreed.
We rule his statement True.
E-mails with Raymonde M. Charles, spokeswoman for Rep. David Cicilline, Sept. 7, 12, 13, 2011
Interviews and e-mails with Gerry Lynam, legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., Sept. 13, 15, 2011
Interview and e-mails with Victor Hansen, professor at New England Law, Boston, Sept. 14, 2011
National Defense Reauthorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, H.R. 1540, accessed Sept. 15, 2011
"The Helen Glover Show," Sept. 1, 2011, accessed Sept, 14, 2011
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