As the U.S. military prepares to expand its operations against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, it has altered how and when it discloses sensitive information about when it kills civilians with airstrikes.
In recent days, U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East from its headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., announced the results of investigations into 10 airstrikes “alleged to have resulted in civilian casualties and determined to be credible.” The first five were announced Jan. 15, and the second five were disclosed a week later. In each case, military officials released just a sentence or two of information.
The recent disclosures varied from earlier cases of civilian casualties because the military did not release documents detailing what happened in the incidents. Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, said that was by design.
“There are varying levels of information available for each allegation deemed credible,” he said in a statement released to The Washington Post. “Balancing against the need to release information quickly and transparently, U.S. Central Command determined that releasing general information about completed civilian casualty reviews would be the most efficient method to keeping the public informed. In accordance with our commitment to transparency, we are working to release the assessment findings of the remaining closed allegations as soon as possible. ”
Ryder added that the process to declassify and redact documents associated with the cases can take months, so it made sense to release the limited information available now separately, and ahead of the documents. But the decision also means the documents will likely only be released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, which have historically taken Central Command many months, and sometimes years, to respond to fully.
Ryder said the military encourages “those interested in finding out more about the individual cases to submit a Freedom of Information Act request.”
In one example of civilian casualties disclosed before the new decision, the U.S. military disclosed in November that an A-10 attack plane had likely killed at least four civilians after dropping a bomb on two vehicles near Al Hatra, Iraq, eight months earlier in March. At the time, the military released 59 pages of documents that detailed how the deaths had occurred. They said that analysts had assessed the vehicles to be legitimate military targets, but a review of video afterward showed that four people whom the military was not aware of exited one of the vehicles after the bombs were released, but before they detonated.
“Post-strike imagery analysis of onboard weapons system video footage indicated that four additional personnel whose status was unknown, and previously undetected, exited the vehicles after the aircrews had released weapons on the target and immediately before the weapons impacted the area,” the investigation found. “Video footage review indicates the aircrew had no opportunity to detect the presence of the likely civilians in the target area prior to weapons impact.”
By comparison, the military said in one investigation disclosed last week that it examined an airstrike carried out more than five months earlier on July 11 near Raqqa, the Syrian city that has become the de facto capital of the Islamic State.
“During counter-ISIL strikes, it was assessed one civilian was killed,” the news release said of the incident, using one of the acronyms for the militants. With no additional detail provided, it concluded: “A post-strike review revealed a secondary explosion from a vehicle crossing a bridge nearby the intended target; this explosion resulted in one civilian likely killed.”
The decision to change how civilian casualties are disclosed comes as Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter presses for more involvement from coalition partners in the fight against the Islamic State fight. In Paris last week, he met with defense ministers from six other countries significantly involved in military operations, and said an even larger meeting will be held in Brussels next month to which he has invited officials with all 26 outside nations involved in the military campaign, along with Iraq.
“Every nation must come prepared to discuss further contributions,” Carter said of the countries invited to attend.
Ryder said there is no connection between the timing of the change in how civilian casualties are disclosed and the expansion of military operations planned.
“Although there’s been a lengthy coordination process, we’ve been working to release this information as quickly as possible, and January was when we were able to make it happen,” Ryder said.
Six of the 10 incidents disclosed this month with likely civilian casualties occurred in July. The others occurred between April and June.