July 06, 2023

Warren, Van Hollen, Jacobs Call on DoD to Release Information on Possible Civilian Casualty from Recent Syria Airstrike

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations 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, expressing concerns that a recent May 2023 U.S. airstrike in Syria may have killed a civilian. Senators Warren and Van Hollen and Representative Jacobs are asking DoD to publicly release as much of their internal investigation into the airstrike as possible. 

“The Department of Defense’s internal investigations have found ‘confirmation bias’ in selecting targets can lead to the U.S. military killing civilians they incorrectly believed to be legitimate targets,” wrote the lawmakers. “The publicly reported timeline of events related to the May 2023 strike indicates that DoD may still be suffering from deadly confirmation bias and resisting the consideration of outside information, and ‘raises questions about how thoroughly CENTCOM has implemented the military’s civilian harm mitigation policy.’” 

“CENTCOM waited two weeks to open a preliminary CCAR (Civilian Casualty Credibility Assessment Report) investigation despite knowing of multiple credible reports that alleged this strike killed a civilian, and did not announce it became a 15-6 investigation until June 28… it is unclear why CENTCOM waited for weeks to fully investigate this matter, and why the tweet announcing that CENTCOM had targeted a senior AQ (Al Qaeda) leader remains online without recognition that this incident is now under investigation,” continued the lawmakers. 

“We are also concerned that this strike may reflect a continued pattern of confirmation bias when DoD conducts airstrikes. Under customary international law, it is well established that when there is doubt as to whether a person is a civilian or a combatant, the person shall be considered a civilian. In deciding to take the strike, we are concerned whether CENTCOM failed to question its assumptions and to appropriately presume civilian status in the absence of clear evidence that the targeted individual was a combatant, exacerbating the risk of misidentification and civilian harm,” they continued. 

Given these serious concerns, Senators Warren and Van Hollen and Representative Jacobs are calling on DoD to publicly release as much information related to the investigation as possible, and they are calling on DoD to answer a set of questions about its broader policies relating to civilian harm prevention, mitigation, and response by July 19, 2023. 

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

  • In May 2023, Senators Warren, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent letters to DoD and the Department of State, raising serious concerns about failures of the Departments’ tracking and monitoring of U.S.-origin weapons, which undermines efforts to prevent and mitigate civilian harm resulting from U.S. military operations or caused by U.S.-origin weapons. 
  • In December 2022, Senator Warren and Representative Jacobs sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, raising concerns that DoD’s 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 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, Sanders, and Lee 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 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 April 2022 Senators Warren, Markey, Leahy, Durbin, Merkley, Sanders, and Van Hollen sent a letter urging the Pentagon to enhance accountability for incidents of civilian harm.
  • 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 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.