March 16, 2022

At Hearing, Warren Questions AFRICOM and CENTCOM Commanders on Efforts to Prevent and Investigate Civilian Harm

Video of Hearing 

Washington, D.C. – During a hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned the Commanders of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) on the steps they are taking to prevent civilian harm, following the release of Defense Secretary Austin’s directive to the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop an action plan to prevent and investigate civilian harm. 

A recent RAND report found that “DOD is not adequately organized, trained, or equipped to fulfill its current responsibilities for addressing civilian harm”, and reports from news outlets, NGOs, and independent observers have found numerous cases of civilian casualties that DOD did not investigate, did not acknowledge, or dismissed. 

During the hearing, Senator Warren established that while AFRICOM has formal processes in place to incorporate findings from trusted NGOs and independent observers to improve how it tracks and responds to reports of civilian harm, CENTCOM is still working to create a formal operational process to incorporate these findings Senator Warren called on all of DOD leadership to commit to preventing and investigating cases of civilian harm as ordered by Secretary Austin, and reiterated that she will continue her oversight of DOD and its progress mitigating civilian harm. 

Senator Warren has long led the call for accountability for U.S. military operations that kill and injure innocent civilians.  

  • In March 2022, Senator Warren and Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent a letter to the Pentagon calling on it to open investigations into instances of civilian harm from U.S. military operations in Yemen, after reports of dozens of deaths.
  • In February 2022, Senator Warren secured a commitment from LTG Michael Kurilla, nominee to be General and Commander of United States Central Command, to prioritize reforms to mitigate civilian casualties.
  • In January 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) led almost 50 of their colleagues in a letter calling on President Biden to overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy after U.S. drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians.
  • In November 2021, Senator Warren sent a letter to Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chairman of SASC, requesting that the Committee launch a formal inquiry to review the findings and implications of a New York Times report detailing how the U.S. military hid an airstrike in Baghuz, Syria that killed dozens of civilians.
  • Following the August 29, 2021, unmanned airstrike that killed ten civilians in Afghanistan, Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna sent a letter to Secretary Austin to use the tragedy of civilian harm to look into the Pentagon’s history of accidentally targeting innocent civilians and significantly under-investigate and undercount civilian casualties. 
  • In July 2021, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna sent a letter urging Secretary Austin to review why significant undercounts of civilian casualties persist and why DOD made zero ex gratia payments to grieving civilians last year despite authorization and funding from Congress.
  • In June 2020, Senator Warren and Representative Khanna introduced the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act, bicameral legislation that would enhance reporting on civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations, improve investigations into civilian casualties, and strengthen resources for the Department's policies and practices relating to civilian casualty prevention and responses.

Transcript: To receive testimony on the posture of United States Central Command and United States Africa Command
U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services 
Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Senator Elizabeth Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thank you to both of our witnesses for being here today, and for your many years of service to our nation. 

The RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research organization that studies national security issues, recently published a report that found a number of pitfalls in the way that our military prevents, investigates, and responds to reports of civilian harm, including, and I want to read from the report, DOD is not adequately organized, trained, or equipped to fulfill its current responsibilities for addressing civilian harm, end quote.

Now, I think that’s a pretty damning finding, particularly as this is far from a new issue for the United States. I know that Secretary Austin has asked DOD to develop an action plan, and I agree with him that protection of civilians is both a strategic and a moral imperative. So I want to learn more about your work to prevent civilian harm in your respective commands. General Townsend, if I can, I’ll start with you on this.

AFRICOM provides a quarterly report updating the public on the status of all reports of civilian casualties, and issued one just late last week. What benefit do you see in regular reporting of civilian casualties to the public? 

General Stephen Townsend, Commander, United States Africa Command: Senator, I believe that being transparent, is probably, or you know, it shows the difference between us, and, well for example the Russians in Ukraine right now. So I believe that publishing those reports publicly and regularly, on a routine basis, is our best tool for gaining the trust of the American public. 

Senator Warren: And I agree with you, and I commend you for doing this. You know, that kind of regular transparency shows that the command is prioritizing and investigating claims of civilian harm. And I would like to see that kind of regular reporting from all of the combatant commanders.

So General, let me ask you another question about this. Would you agree that there are several reputable, trusted NGOs and independent observers in civil society that produce reliable reporting on civilian harm?

General Townsend: I think I would. 

Senator Warren: Good. Has AFRICOM undertaken a formal process to incorporate feedback from these groups to improve how it tracks and responds to reports of civilian harm?

General Townsend: Yes Senator, we take their feedback with every report they make.

Senator Warren: Well, that’s important, and I think – let me ask you. Do you have a formal process for doing this or are you just kinda of integrating as you go along? 

General Townsend: We have a portal that anyone that has access to the internet can report a civilian casualties or take exception to our evaluation of those. 

Senator Warren: Good, I’m glad to hear this. You know, these groups can provide essential information, not only to accurately identify where you need to investigate claims of civilian harm but also to help in preventing the killing of civilians in future strikes.RAND’s report recommended that DOD engage with outside groups more, and I’m glad to see you doing this. 

General McKenzie, let me talk with you a minute here. The vast majority of the civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations have occurred in CENTCOM’s AOR. Not only that, but reporting from the New York Times found major instances of civilian harm in Syria that had been covered up.

Does CENTCOM have an established process for incorporating feedback from trusted civil society groups to improve the ways that it prevents and responds to instances of civilian harm?

General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander, United States Central Command: Senator, we did, and it was not as robust and straightforward a program as it should have been. In the wake of the RAND report and other reports, we’ve taken ten discrete actions that are designed all to more formalize and provide additional oversight on the possibility of civilian casualties. 

Senator Warren: Good, I’m very glad to hear that, General, because given their expertise, I think we have a lot to learn from these groups and it can help improve processes. 

It’s long past time that the United States took seriously the impact of the way it treats civilian harm. And I’m glad that Secretary Austin is addressing this, but meaningful change is gonna take buy in from the two of you, from your successors, and from the rest of the DOD leadership.

I’m working on legislation to address these problems, but in the meantime, I’ll be paying close attention to the Department’s action plan and to your work implementing it in the hopes that some of the principles we’ve talked about today will be implemented soon. So thank you very much, thank you for your work on this. 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.