February 08, 2022

At Hearing, Warren Secures Commitment from Pentagon Nominee to Prioritize Reforms to Mitigate Civilian Casualties

Video of Hearing Exchange (Youtube)

Washington, D.C. — During a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), questioned LTG Michael “Erik” Kurilla’s, nominee to be General and Commander of United States Central Command, about civilian casualties that have resulted from U.S. operations. In the past two decades, the U.S. military operations have killed tens of thousands of innocent people despite Congressional oversight, dozens of watchdog groups raising the alarm and documenting the harm, and the Department of Defense’s own efforts to reform how it protects civilians. After Senator Warren and nearly 50 bicameral colleagues called on the Biden administration to overhaul its counterterrorism policy following numerous civilian deaths in recent months, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, III released a directive for the United States military to strengthen its efforts to prevent civilian deaths. 

During their exchange, LTG Michael Kurilla agreed with Senator Warren that civilian casualties are a tragedy and that more work needs to be done to protect civilians. He also agreed with Senator Warren that civilian casualties deserve the Pentagon’s full attention and should require a thorough full investigation. 

Senator Warren has long led the call for accountability for U.S. military operations that kill innocent civilians.  Senator Warren and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) 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: Nomination Hearing of Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla, Nominee to be general and Commander, United States Central Command
U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee
Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Senator Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. General Kurilla, congratulations on your nomination. I’d like to focus on one of the topics that you and I discussed when we met last week: civilian casualties.

I think everyone in this room can agree that U.S. military operations kill far too many civilians. In the past two decades, the United States has killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including hundreds of women and children, across half a dozen countries in the Middle East and Africa. Now, we’ll likely never know the true numbers given the difficulty of accurate reporting and the Pentagon’s failure to fully investigate reports of civilian harm.

This has been the unfortunate reality of U.S. military operations despite Congressional oversight, despite dozens of watchdog groups raising the alarm, despite documenting the harm, and DOD’s own efforts and attempts at reforms designed to improve how it protects civilians.

So, General, you’ve been nominated to lead the United States’ military operations in an AOR that has seen the lion’s share of these casualties. Civilian casualties, obviously, they destroy the lives of those affected, and that alone is reason enough for reforms. But would you also agree that these casualties harm our credibility abroad and fuel the very insurgencies we are fighting to defeat?

General Kurilla: Senator, they do.

Senator Warren: Good, that you recognize this. Do you want to say more about that?

General Kurilla: Senator, every civilian casualty is a tragedy. I know that there is a process right now down at CENTCOM, and if confirmed, I will look to see how I can improve upon that process.

Senator Warren: Now, you know, it's clear that we do need reforms and I'm glad that you want to focus on this. But instead of tackling this problem head on, the Pentagon has repeatedly weakened accountability for civilian casualties.

Most recently reporting from the New York Times detailed a secretive U.S. task force that used loopholes in the law to sidestep safeguards designed to protect against civilian casualties. The Times also found that DoD prematurely dismissed many civilian casualty reports at the assessment phase without doing basic due diligence, like internet searches or searching in Arabic.

General, do you agree that any credible reports of civilian casualties deserve the Pentagon’s full attention and thorough investigation?

General Kurilla: Senator, I do and I think the Secretary of Defense's new civilian harm mitigation and response plan of action that he's asked to come back in 90 days from 27 January, if confirmed, I would look to be able to participate in that to make the process better.

Senator Warren: Good. I'm glad to hear that you're committed to full investigation. We'll see what happens with the reforms. You know, it’s clear additional reforms are needed. I have ideas on that front, and I’m sure there are others and I’m not alone on this.

So, let me just see, I know we have a report coming out but, General, if confirmed, will you commit to prioritizing reforms that will mitigate civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations and improving accountability and transparency at the Pentagon on this issue?

General Kurilla: Senator, I will.

Senator Warren: Good, I really appreciate it, General, and I want to say thank you. You know, I’ve said it before, but it deserves repeating: the system is broken. We cannot accept the deaths of innocent civilians as an unavoidable cost of warfare. It's long past time that DOD addresses the harms that U.S. military operations have caused and implement meaningful reforms that deemphasize lethal force and prioritize civilian lives.

I’ve already asked President Biden to incorporate these ideals into his upcoming counterterrorism review, but General, if confirmed, I think you’re going to have an opportunity to set the standard for protecting innocent lives and actually implement some real change here. I look forward to working with you on this issue.

Thank you.