December 19, 2022

Warren, Jacobs Raise Concerns that DoD Continues to Undercount Civilian Casualties in Annual Report

Independent Reporting Shows Vast Differences in Civilian Casualty Count 

“It is a continued betrayal of our values to continually undercount and refuse to acknowledge or take proper steps to address the civilian casualties that result from U.S. military action.”

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and U.S. Representative Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, raising concerns that the Department of Defense’s (DoD) September 2022 report to Congress on civilian casualties appears to undercount civilian casualties from U.S. military operations and that DoD is not exercising its authority to make amends to civilian victims and survivors. 

“In this year’s report, the Department reported that approximately 12 civilians were killed and five were injured in Afghanistan and Somalia as a result of U.S. military operations during 2021. However, the report did not admit to any civilian deaths in Syria, despite credible civilian casualty monitors documenting at least 15 civilian deaths and 17 civilian injuries in Syria in 2021. The report also appeared to undercount additional civilian casualties from Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) that occurred prior to 2021,” wrote the lawmakers. 

Senator Warren’s amendment in the fiscal year (FY) 2018 National Defense Authorization Act requires DoD to issue an annual report on civilian casualties that result in U.S. military action. DoD’s most recent report to Congress found that 12 civilians were killed and five were injured in 2021. DoD’s counting of civilian harm often is vastly different than those found by news reporting and investigations from outside groups. The CJTF-OIR report only disclosed four civilians killed and 15 civilians injured from a 2018 air strike in Baghuz, Syria, but local sources alleged that the strike resulted in at least 160 civilian deaths, including up to 45 children. 

The lawmakers note that this underreporting is partly because DoD is not giving appropriate weight to outside sources when investigating civilian casualty reports. A 2021 DoD-sponsored RAND Corporation assessment on DoD civilian casualty policies found that “officials did not sufficiently engage external sources for information before concluding that reports of civilian casualties were not credible”, and that DoD’s standard of proof “often required having positive proof indicating civilian harm in military information,” failing to put proper weight on outside source reporting. 

The lawmakers also raise concerns that DoD’s report revealed that it only made one ex gratia payment in 2021 – despite an annual $3 million authorization from Congress for these payments and a large number of cases that DoD has confirmed as credible. These payments are used to express condolence to civilian victims and survivors and to “advance the U.S. mission on the ground, build rapport with local communities, and reinforce the U.S. relationship with the host-nation government.”  

“The FY 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes key provisions to assist in strengthening civilian harm protection, such as the creation of the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence to focus on these matters, dedicating resources to CHMR-AP implementation, expanding reporting requirements, and extending the authority of ex gratia payments,” continued the lawmakers. “We urge DoD to swiftly implement these provisions as part of its monitoring and prevention of civilian harm going forward,” 

Given these concerns, the lawmakers are calling on DoD to improve mechanisms for reporting civilian harm, including a dedicated phone hotline for reporting casualties and translating DoD’s website to report civilian harm into local languages. The lawmakers are asking DoD to answer a set of questions about how it plans to address their concerns by January 16, 2023. 

Senator Warren has led the call to hold the U.S. military accountable for harm to innocent civilians: 

  • In December 2022, Senator Warren announced priorities that she secured in the FY 2023 NDAA, including fundamentally reforming DoD's approach to preventing civilian harm by creating a Civilian Protection Center of Excellence to serve as a focal point for civilian casualty, providing s $25 million in dedicated resources to implement the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Plan being developed by DoD and reforms prescribed in the NDAA, and enhancing annual reporting on civilian harm. 
  • In September 2022, Senators Warren, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent letters to DoD and the Department of State, calling on the Departments to thoroughly investigate how U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen may have led to civilian harm and analyze to the effectiveness of civilian harm reduction efforts by the Saudi and Emirati governments
  • In August 2022, DoD released its Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan that was responsive to Senator Warren’s numerous proposals and calls for DoD to prioritize civilian harm prevention. 
  • 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 April 2022, Senator Warren and Representatives Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), Jason Crow (D-Colo.), Jacobs and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) announced two pieces of bicameral legislation that would overhaul the prevention, mitigation, reporting, and transparency of civilian harm caused by U.S. military operations, the Department of Defense Civilian Harm Transparency Act and the Protection of Civilians in Military Operations Act.
  • 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 Khanna 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 January 2022, Senators Warren and Murphy and Representative Khanna released a statement in support of DoD’s directive to prevent civilian deaths
  • 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-investigating and undercounting 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.