‘Infuriating’ Report Reveals ‘Breathtaking Cover-Up’ of US Airstrike That Killed Syrian Civilians

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By Jessica Corbett. Originally published at Common Dreams

Advocacy groups, human rights defenders, fellow reporters, and other readers of The New York Times were outraged Saturday after journalists Dave Philipps and Eric Schmitt published their investigation into a deadly 2019 U.S. airstrike in Syria and all that followed.

“This NYT report on the cover-up of U.S. war crimes in Syria should make your blood boil,” Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, tweeted Sunday. “The U.S. wantonly kills civilians, covers it up, and then tells other countries how ‘democracy’ works. Infuriating.”

Evan Hill, a journalist on the Times‘ visual investigations team, said that “this is a long, complicated story, but it’s one that touches on nearly every problem with the global U.S. air war. At every attempt, the military tried to cover it up.”

The Times began by detailing the scene over two years ago, when the U.S. military was using a drone near the Syrian town of Baghuz to search for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants, and encountered women and children along a river bank:

Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there.

“Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

An initial battle damage assessment quickly found that the number of dead was actually about 70.

After the strike, civilian observers “found piles of dead women and children,” reported Philipps and Schmitt, who spent months investigating one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against ISIS, relying on confidential documents, descriptions of classified reports, and interviews.

A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike,” the pair explained. “The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.”

Gene Tate, a former U.S. Navy officer who worked on the Defense Department inspector general’s inquiry into the strike, told the Times that he criticized the lack of action and was ultimately forced out of his position.

“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” Tate said. “It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what’s right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it.”

According to Philipps and Schmitt:

This week, after The New York Times sent its findings to U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command acknowledged the strikes for the first time, saying 80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. It said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation, or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

Both Tate and an Air Force lawyer—who didn’t respond to the Times‘ requests for comment—reached out to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to share concerns. Chip Unruh, a spokesperson for the panel’s chair, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), declined to comment on the incident.

However, Unruh told the Times more broadly that “when tragic errors occur on the battlefield, the United States, as the leader of the free world, has an obligation to be transparent, take responsibility, and do everything we can to learn from and prevent future mistakes.”

Gene Tate, a former U.S. Navy officer who worked on the Defense Department inspector general’s inquiry into the strike, told the Times that he criticized the lack of action and was ultimately forced out of his position.

“Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” Tate said. “It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what’s right but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it.”

According to Philipps and Schmitt:

This week, after The New York Times sent its findings to U.S. Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria, the command acknowledged the strikes for the first time, saying 80 people were killed but the airstrikes were justified. It said the bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians. As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms.

“We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation, or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

Both Tate and an Air Force lawyer—who didn’t respond to the Times‘ requests for comment—reached out to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee to share concerns. Chip Unruh, a spokesperson for the panel’s chair, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), declined to comment on the incident.

However, Unruh told the Times more broadly that “when tragic errors occur on the battlefield, the United States, as the leader of the free world, has an obligation to be transparent, take responsibility, and do everything we can to learn from and prevent future mistakes.”

The “breathtaking cover-up,” as Washington Post investigative reporter Craig Whitlock called it, sparked criticism of the Defense Department as well as demands for accountability and reforms.

Nahal Toosi, senior foreign affairs correspondent at Politico, asked what the point is of having a Defense Department inspector general “if they a) don’t do their job b) never release public reports of what they find in a case like this.”

“This is nothing short of criminal conspiracy,” said Daniel Mahanty of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “They bulldozed the strike site and manipulated logs. Who is going to jail for this?”

“The U.S. needs to leave Syria ASAP,” declared Trita Parsi, executive vice president at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Our military presence there makes us LESS safe!”

CodePink reached the same conclusion of the U.S. presence in the Middle East, tweeting Saturday: “Make no mistake. There will be more of these atrocities and more dirty cover-ups if we if stay. We cannot allow that.”

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27 comments

  1. marcel

    Let’s wait until we find out what the US Armed Forces did to Raqqa. We haven’t even started to count the thousands of civilian deaths over there – while ISIS soldiers were transported away to fight another war elsewhere.

    Reply
  2. cnchal

    > . . . But one worth asking is WTF is the point of having a DOD inspector general if they a) don’t do their job b) never release public reports of what they find in a case like this. . .

    The DOD inspector general has extra wide paint brushes and drums of whitewash. That’s the point.

    > “We abhor the loss of innocent life and take all possible measures to prevent them,” Capt. Bill Urban, the chief spokesman for the command, said in the statement. “In this case, we self-reported and investigated the strike according to our own evidence and take full responsibility for the unintended loss of life.”

    What does “full responsibilty” look like? A life for a life? . . . or how about a $700 billion budget cut for the military, shrivel it down so it can be drowned in a bathtub. Talk about useless eaters, FFS.

    mIn – my military salute

    Reply
    1. vidimi

      i had the same thoughts on both counts. the DOD inspector is like a financial controller or internal auditor at a big corp: they are there to cover shit up.

      taking full responsibility ought to be the gallows in this case, for the people who ordered the strike as well as those who executed it.

      Reply
    2. Mike

      I agree with the budget cut. I think we have an unfortunate cultural skew towards respecting the military too much in this country. A good portion of people hate various government workers, agencies, corporations, cops etc but it seems everyone has respect for the troops. You cant blame people for being patriotic and wanting to serve the country but how do we stop our excessive militarism that is eating this country from the inside out? We all know budgetarily it is not sustainable over the long haul and we will reap what we have sowed from decades of useless wars eventually. I guess my point is maybe its time to start making it such that people don’t want to join by not holding it as such a coveted and honorable pursuit. in reality we have killed quite possibly a million people since 9/11 so is there really so much honor in that? The cultural shift I am suggesting is similar to what has happened to policing since George Floyd. Although I don’t agree with that particular example, we are essentially creating a culture where less people are motivated to put on the blue uniform. In the case with the military I think we would benefit over the long term by doing the same.

      Reply
  3. BillS

    (sarc) Wow. That great cheerleader of the governing elite, the NYT, publishes a story on a “collateral murder”. I guess they will be releasing Julian Assange soon..or prosecuting the NYT reporters who broke this story. (/sarc)

    Reply
  4. Tom Stone

    Any one surprised by this cover up has been living under a rock for a half century or more.
    The first time I became aware of the USA covering up War Crimes by our Military was 1968.
    I was 15 years old.
    The weapons are more effective, the liars are more practiced,censorship is much more overt, our Government is more corrupt and repressive and that’s about it.

    Reply
  5. William Beyer

    In case we’ve all forgotten, every day the U.S. remains in Syria is a war crime. We are there in violation of the UN Charter and international law. Regarding the “accidental” bombing, I recommend Sven Lindqvist’s remarkable book, “A History of Bombing,” which is a must-read. In it we learn that way back in 1912, Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “As Easy as A.B.C.” predicted that in 2065, our “Aerial Board of Control” would patrol the world.

    Reply
  6. The Rev Kev

    A coupla weeks ago there was an article about a Special Forces unit operating in Afghanistan who had a psychopath in charge. The guy actually got off on killing people – any people – and it got so bad that his people would let off a few rounds downrange at villagers so that they would seek cover before the unit commander could do his thing. So it had me wondering. This massacre of women and children was the result of a ground unit that called in this drone strike. What if the commander of this ground unit was of a like mind but wanted to do his massacres wholesale rather then retail?

    Reply
    1. Tom Stone

      Sorry Rev, wholesale Massacres are reserved for the Medical/Pharma complex these days.
      That may change if the deplorables become more revolting.

      Reply
      1. The Rev Kev

        You may be right. How many Americans alone were the Sackler family killing with their dodgy opioids? Wasn’t it about 40,000 a year?

        Reply
    2. ambrit

      Hah! Think back to the 1990 Gulf War and remember the massacre of the retreating Iraki units along the “Highway of Death,” Highway 80. The Iraki authorities made it plain that they were retreating. The Americans didn’t care. They had all these shiny new toys and wanted to play with them.
      Read: https://jalopnik.com/iraqi-forces-were-annihilated-while-retreating-on-the-1754611524
      When you wonder about how bad the military leadership can get, look at Coppola’s retelling of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” “Apocaplypse Now.” We may think that the renegade officer Kurtz is the crazy one, but look closely at how the “regular” officers in the airconditioned trailer in the jungle act. They cover up their savagery with pretensions to ‘legality.’ Kurtz must be destroyed, according to them, because he lays the savagery bare for all to see.
      “Heart of Darkness” is not a completely made up story. Conrad wrote it drawing upon his personal experiences conning a river steamer up the Belgian Congo river. The atrocities he describes in the story are mainly real world events.
      This ‘problem’ is as old as Terran humans have been on this globe.

      Reply
      1. Procopius

        Apparently you have never read Clausewitz. The operational objective in battle is to annihilate the enemy’s army. Annihilate. Kill them all, God will know his own.This is also the American definition of “victory,” although I’ve forgotten the number of the field manual. If you read military history you will find that “pursuit” is the opportunity to massacre the disorganized and panic-stricken fugitives. If you are offended by this, you should make greater efforts to prevent the war hawks from succeeding. Killing innocent women and children is the nature of war, no matter how much the psyop units try to deny it. That’s why I’ve always said “war” was the wrong response to 9/11.

        Reply
  7. Tom Stone

    Gotta love that “Worst since My Lai 4” bit.
    Because that was also published by the “Times” when it occasionally committed journalism.
    If the “Times” is only looking at US war crimes that took place in the distant past Panama comes to mind…and so do a dozen or so others.
    If it’s raining why is only one of my legs wet?

    Reply
  8. jhallc

    Yet Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange will be hounded to the end of time for exposing the same.

    “Manning reportedly made her first contact with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks in November 2009 after having made attempts to contact The New York Times and The Washington Post.” https://www.biography.com/activist/chelsea-manning

    Guess the NYT and the WP didn’t think that was journalism back then. What a country we live in:(

    Reply
  9. chuck roast

    This is the first I have heard about this particular atrocity. Interesting that Jack Reed is near center stage. He is a career opportunist and soft-core manipulator. Graduate of West Point in 1971. The second lieutenants who want to advance to the top go infantry, armour or artillery. So, Reed became a paratrooper. However, he clearly valued his skin, and took the road less traveled. No Vietnam for that boy. Still, he is a solid member of the Club that places a high value on omerta and solidarity. Well, he has advanced to the top now. We will see how this goes for him.

    Reply
    1. chuck roast

      Read the paper in the library. Reed, if not the Armed Services Committee, has known about it since May. See if he tries baffling us with BS.

      Reply
  10. shinola

    “Collateral damage” don’cha know. It’s their own fault. They shoulda known better than to hang around in someplace rife with possible suspected enemy combatants.

    Sincerely,

    General Jack D Ripper

    Reply
  11. HH

    This is what comes of worshiping the military. We have an unaccountable military and unsupervised “intelligence” agencies. Senators and representatives are literally afraid of offending these “heroes.” There have been no repercussions for the howling disaster of Afghanistan. No torturers have been prosecuted. The blood of the innocent cries out for justice and Americans salute their killers.

    Reply
  12. ArvidMartensen

    Is this a sanctioned leak or an unsanctioned leak?
    If unsanctioned, will the authors have to flee the country and join Snowden in Russia? Or will they be incarcerated in Belmarsh like Assange, en route to a US Gulag via a Grand Jury tick and flick?
    If sanctioned, as seems to be indicated by a major media org running the story rather than being told to suppress it, what is its purpose? Is this a look over there exercise to cover up even worse war crimes? Or is it some sort of revenge drive-by by some military/political player?
    I don’t think there is any way we can take this story at face value at the moment. I prefer to know which game I’m a pawn in.

    Reply
  13. The Rev Kev

    Just now read a story saying that-
    ‘The White House announced Monday that Biden will nominate Robert Storch, who has been the National Security Agency/Central Security Service inspector general since January 2018, to be the Pentagon’s inspector general. The Pentagon has been without a Senate-confirmed inspector general since the end of the Obama administration in January 2016.’
    I guess that explains how the Pentagon has been able to get away with murder-

    https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/11/15/biden-names-pick-pentagon-watchdog-filling-job-thats-been-vacant-half-decade.html

    Reply

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