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“Crisis of Accountability”: Pentagon Reopens Probe of Syrian Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians

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Image Credit: Defense Department

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a new investigation into one of the deadliest U.S. airstrikes in recent years, after The New York Times exposed an orchestrated cover-up by U.S. military officials to conceal the attack. The March 2019 airstrike killed dozens of women and children during a bombing of one of the last strongholds of the Islamic State of Syria. Evidence has shown that U.S. military officials spent two-and-a-half years covering up the attack by downplaying the death toll, delaying reports and sanitizing and classifying evidence of civilian deaths. “This is not the case of one little mistake,” says Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Counterterrorism, Armed Conflict and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School. “This really points to a crisis of accountability in the Pentagon.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a new high-level inquiry into one of the deadliest known U.S. airstrikes in recent years. In March 2019, a secretive U.S. special operations unit called Task Force 9 bombed the Syrian town of Baghuz, killing dozens of women and children. The bombing came as the U.S. was attacking one of the last strongholds of the Islamic State in Syria. The military then spent two-and-a-half years covering up the attack, even though the high civilian death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. One legal officer even flagged the attack as a possible war crime. U.S. military officials downplayed the death toll, delayed reports and sanitized and classified evidence of civilian deaths. U.S.-led coalition forces also bulldozed the blast site. The Pentagon reopened its investigation only after The New York Times exposed what happened.

This comes as U.S. Central Command acknowledged Sunday that civilians may also have been killed last week when a U.S. drone strike targeted an alleged al-Qaeda leader.

We’re joined right now by Priyanka Motaparthy, director of the Project on Armed Conflict, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Columbia Law School. She recently co-wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Austin calling on him to review the civilian death toll of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen in light of the military cover-up in Syria.

Professor, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t we start off with Syria, I mean, what it took to get this official investigation? Explain exactly what you understand happened in March of 2019.

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Of course. Thank you for having me, Amy.

So, what we understand at this point really comes from The New York Times reporting, and what they reported is that in March 2019, 70 individuals in Baghuz, Syria, were killed, a large number of them women and children. Immediately after that airstrike, it was reported by at least one Air Force lawyer as a potential war crime. And yet, in the period between then and now, it seems like every effort to investigate this strike, to report it up the chain, to have very serious review happen of what occurred in this strike, of why these women and children were killed, to determine their status and whether or not this was a war crime, it seems like at every step these investigations failed. The efforts to report them failed. The efforts to draw attention to this very serious incident have failed.

And so, where we stand now is that the Pentagon has ordered yet another investigation into this incident. But what we really need to see is, you know, for this investigation to be credible, for it to be meaningful in any way, it will have to be different from any investigation we’ve seen at this point, whether that is into what happened in Syria or, really, any investigation they’ve carried out elsewhere, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, in addition to everything else, the bulldozing of the site of the attack in March 2019, can you respond to this, and also the Pentagon spokesperson, John Kirby, saying, “No military in the world works as hard as we do to avoid civilian casualties”? Start off with the bulldozing of this site, clearly to destroy the evidence.

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Of course. So, first of all, the bulldozing of the site is just one piece of a larger puzzle, where, again, every aspect of what was supposed to happen failed. The site was bulldozed. Records were apparently — strike logs were apparently falsified or incorrectly registered. The strike was reported, but no serious investigation happened. This is not the case of one little mistake, one extraordinary incident, one unique case where one thing went wrong. This really points to a crisis of accountability in the Pentagon. And you see that by the fact that, as you said, the strike was bulldozed. That was happening on the ground. In the control room, you know, the reporting did not go as it should have gone. In terms of the record keeping, that also did not go the way it was meant to go and the way that we’re told it goes.

We are told, as you said, that this military does more than any other military in the world to avoid civilian casualties, to prevent civilian casualties. And yet, again and again, that is not what we see. We continue to see civilians getting killed. Investigations, thorough investigations, are not happening. And that is a key part of what needs to happen. How can you say that your military is doing more than any other military in the world, when you are not doing the basic elements needed to properly investigate what happens, why civilians are getting killed, and taking the basic steps to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? If you are not properly investigating these types of incidents, then you are not able to make the corrections you need to make to ensure that civilians don’t get killed in the future. And that is why we are looking not just at what happened in Baghuz, but really a 20-year record of civilian harm that has happened in Syria but also in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, elsewhere around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about Yemen in a minute, but can you talk about this secretive U.S. special operations unit called Task Force 9 that carried out this particular attack?

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Really, Amy, what I know about Task Force 9 again comes from that New York Times article. And what we found is that there was a real — you know, what we read from that article was that there was a real lack of coordination between that task force and other parts of CENTCOM that were operating in Syria, in the exact same theater, in the exact same very small piece of land at that point in time.

And what The New York Times reported about Task Force 9 raises some very serious questions. They reported that Task Force 9 repeatedly described its operations as self-defense operations, even when there was no incoming fire, even when their troops were not on the ground. And a number of other concerns, as well, were raised in that article. So, certainly, you know, part of this investigation needs to be looking into what this particular task force was doing, not just in this one incident but really in the variety of incidents, the variety of operations it was carrying out, because it’s very hard from reading this article — when I read this article, it was very hard to think this is an isolated problem. It does not appear to be an isolated problem, because it’s very hard to imagine these types of mistakes happening just as one-off incidents.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned other countries. Let’s talk about Yemen. Late last month, the Saudi-led military coalition launched air raids on the capital Sana’a with reports of massive explosions in the city’s northern neighborhoods. Saudi officials said they were targeting Houthi military sites in retaliation for the rebel group’s earlier drone strikes on sites in Saudi Arabia, including a major oil hub in Jeddah. The latest violence coming after thousands of people marched through the streets of Sana’a protesting U.S. support for the Saudi-led military coalition.

ABU MAHRAN AL-SAMAWI: [translated] We the Yemeni people took to the streets today to denounce the military escalation carried out by America, the economic blockade and the continuation of aggression. We had thought that when Joe Biden took office, he would keep his promises on stopping the war on Yemen and open the airport in Sana’a. It turned out that all that talk was a lie.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what’s happening in Yemen, Professor Priyanka Motaparthy.

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Of course. So, the war in Yemen is in its seventh year. And let’s remember that this is — first of all, there is the war that we are all familiar with, that we see daily in the news, which has caused the massive humanitarian crisis, which has caused thousands of civilian casualties, and where the U.S. has played a key role supporting the Saudi-led coalition, support that, by the way, continues to this day and under this administration. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia continue. Counterterrorism partnerships with the Emirati government continue. There’s really been no accountability for what has happened in Yemen, for the war crimes, potential war crimes, committed by all parties to this conflict. And the U.S. has done — you know, in terms of the U.S. role there, the U.S. has played a very harmful role in supporting this conflict at the same time as it’s trying to serve as a peace broker. So, certainly, the U.S. has a lot to do in terms of looking at the harmful nature of its support to the conflict in Yemen and really trying to rejigger what’s happening there.

AMY GOODMAN: And the role, overall, of the U.S. in Yemen and who you think needs to engage in this investigation, when we’re talking about one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises in the world?

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Yes, of course. So, first of all, the U.S. is supporting the Saudi-led military coalition. And let’s also remember that the U.S. is carrying out its own military operations in Yemen, its own counterterrorism operations in Yemen, targeting what it describes as al-Qaeda targets, potential ISIS targets. And so, there have also been civilians killed in those strikes that we have reported to the Pentagon. So the U.S. both has work to do looking at its role in supporting one aspect of the conflict, but it also has work to do examining and really being transparent about its role directly carrying out military operations in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: You mentioned Somalia. What most needs to be investigated there?

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Again, as in Afghanistan, as in Syria, as in Yemen, in Somalia, as well, there have been many incidents where independent observers, journalists and human rights groups have reported civilian deaths and civilian injuries, as well as other civilian harm, in U.S. operations in Somalia. And again, we only see the U.S. admitting fault, acknowledging its role in causing civilian deaths in just a very small fraction of these. There are a number of incidents that they’ve yet to take a serious look at. And we are not aware of any amends, any compensation being paid to families, where they have acknowledged causing deaths, killing members of those families.

AMY GOODMAN: And Afghanistan, as you mention — I mean, we all now know about this drone attack in the last days of the U.S. — during the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, because all the media was in Kabul. Would you say what we saw there and the admissions by the Pentagon because of the reporters on the ground interviewing the family and finding out the number of children who were killed, that this is an example of what’s happened in Afghanistan for the last 20 years?

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: You know, that strike was in many ways of a piece with exactly what we’ve seen in Afghanistan for the last 20 years, where incorrect intelligence led to targeting and killing of civilians. In other cases, civilians have been killed as collateral damage. But either way, there has been a common response that these strikes were justified, that they were based on good intelligence, that they were righteous, as I believe one general has said.

In this case, what was unique is that, as you said, there were journalists in Kabul, excellent investigative journalists, who went, who really followed this story up, who visited the family just shortly after that attack, and was able to really piece together, in a very detailed way, not only who was killed and the fact that seven children were killed, some of them very, very young, but really piece together the details of who this individual was who was apparently targeted — he was a humanitarian aid worker — what he was doing the day that the strike was carried out, and to get a counternarrative from the military in which they alleged he went to some kind of safe house and was packing his car with explosives. And what they were able to do was really contrast these narratives, one of supposition and assumption about his hostile intent and one, the reality, that he was an aid worker going about his days. And so, what was unusual was that we were able to contrast these narratives and understand the truth of what happened in this case.

But there are many, many other cases, families living in more remote areas, whose harm did not happen in such an intense period where there was so much media scrutiny of what was happening in the country, and their cases did not get the same level of scrutiny, will not get the same response. And that is just a tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the drone whistleblower Daniel Hale. In July, the former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst was sentenced to 45 months in prison, almost four years in prison. He has pled guilty to leaking government documents revealing the U.S. military’s drone program. In November 2013, he spoke at a drone summit in D.C. organized by CodePink.

DANIEL HALE: Before I begin one last thing, I just would like to, in a way, say I’m sorry. I’m not up here for any good reasons. And to the people in the audience who are victims or who are families of victims or have families who live in countries where U.S. militarism, and specifically unmanned systems, are conducting kinetic strikes, I’m sorry, because I’m up here because I was, for a time, a short period of time during my military career as an analyst, working with unmanned systems and deployed to Afghanistan. And at the very least, you all deserve an apology.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Daniel Hale, the drone whistleblower, now being held at a communication management unit in prison at United States Penitentiary, Marion in southern Illinois. Professor Motaparthy, who should be in jail, and who should be free?

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: You know, Amy, I think that that question really — what we want to do is what we want to understand, you know, why Daniel Hale did what he did, what motivated him, and what were the results of his actions. And frankly, what he did was to bring to the American public and to the global public a level of transparency about what was really happening in some of these drone strikes and the way that civilian casualties were being undercounted through the systems that the U.S. military was using.

What he disclosed, among other things, was that individuals who were not identified who were killed in these strikes, people who were killed whose identity was not known, they were also being described as enemies killed in action. And that is how we came — that is part of the reason that we consistently undercount the number of civilians killed in U.S. military operations overseas and understand them to be more successful or more justified than they may be in reality. Daniel Hale played a key part in exposing that undercounting of civilian deaths. And certainly, he did a great service to the American public in exposing that information.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Priyanka Motaparthy, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the Project on Armed Conflict, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Columbia Law School.

Next up, ahead of an international meeting on killer robots, the Biden administration rejects calls for an international ban on the use of lethal autonomous weapons. Stay with us.

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