Whistleblowers in the United States military exposed a strike in Syria that resulted in the massacre of around 70 women and children, according to an investigation by the New York Times.
The command responsible for the strike conceded a war crime may have taken place, but a report by the Office of the Inspector General for the Defense Department removed this opinion.
Officials in the Pentagon impeded an investigation and ensured no one would ever be held accountable for the civilian deaths. They also turned on one of the whistleblowers, forcing them out of their position in the I.G.’s office.
What happened proves once again that going through proper channels can be a fruitless and risky career-ending effort.
Lisa Ling, a former tech sergeant who worked on drone surveillance systems and is a known whistleblower, reacted, “Again, the public is notified of a ‘possible’ war crime by a brave whistleblower who was eventually forced out of their job.”
“This is a pattern that exemplifies the need for robust whistleblower protections especially for the intelligence community so often carved out of them. We need more light shined in these secret spaces so that this doesn’t happen again, and again, and again, without the public knowing what is done in our name.”
As the Times reported, on March 18, 2019, “In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank.”
U.S. military forces launched a double tap strike. An American F-15E “attack jet” dropped a 500-pound bomb. As survivors scrambled for cover, another jet dropped a 2,000-pound bomb that killed “most of the survivors.”
A "high-definition drone" recorded the scene prior to the bombing. Two or three men were near a compound. Though they had rifles, neither engaged coalition forces. Women and children were observed in the area.
“At nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized, and classified,” and the Times added, “Coalition forces bulldozed the blast site.”
The strike was the work of a classified U.S. special operations unit known as Task Force 9. They were responsible for the third-worst “casualty event” in Syria.
According to the Times, an unnamed Air Force intelligence officer in the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar contacted Lieutenant Colonel Dean Korsak, who was an Air Force lawyer. They were ordered to preserve video and other evidence from the “F-15E squadron and drone crew.”
Korsak concluded a “possible war crime” was committed that required an independent investigation. He noted that Task Force 9 was “clearly seeking to cover up” incidents like this strike by logging false entries after the fact—for example, the man had a gun.
The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations was notified. However, as the Times recalled, a major refused to investigate. Civilian casualties were only investigated if there was a “potential for media attention, concern with outcry from local community/government, [and/or] concern sensitive images may get out.”
In other words, if the Pentagon needed to get ahead of a potential scandal, they would investigate and craft a narrative that could tamp down outrage. But they did not believe the Baghuz strike would ever make headlines.
Korsak tried once more to convince his superiors to investigate in May 2019. They still refused. So Korsak filed a “hotline complaint” with the I.G.’s office in August 2019.
Gene Tate, a “former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office,” told the Times, “When [Korsak] came to us, he wanted to make it very clear he had tried everything else first. He felt the I.G. hotline was the only option remaining.”
Roadblocks prevented Tate from having any success. He could not find the footage from the task force drone that called in the strike. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) removed the war crime finding from a report on the massacre.
In January 2020, according to the Times investigation, the deputy inspector general refused to sign off on a memo that would have alerted authorities to the war crime.
Tate did not hesitate to criticize leadership in the I.G.’s office, and by October 2020, he was forced out of the office.
In May 2021, Tate contacted the Senate Armed Services Committee and sent a 10-page letter that detailed the Baghuz strike. However, as of November 13, he was still waiting for any member of the committee to call him back.
To further illustrate how stunning it is that senators on the committee ignored what Tate shared, CIA officers in Syria were so alarmed by the conduct of Task Force 9 that they complained to the I.G.’s office for the Defense Department.
“CIA officers alleged that in 10 incidents the secretive task force hit targets knowing civilians would be killed,” according to one former task force officer quoted by the Times.
The New York Times shared their reporting with CENTCOM prior to publication and asked for official comment. CENTCOM acknowledged “80 people were killed” but insisted the strike was justified. “The bombs killed 16 fighters and four civilians."
“As for the other 60 people killed, the statement said it was not clear that they were civilians, in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms,” according to CENTCOM.
This is part of the legacy of President Barack Obama’s administration. He developed a method of counting civilian casualties that would not “box him in.” In 2012, the Times reported all “military-age males in a strike zone” found dead were presumed to be “combatants” unless there was “explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
If commanding officers refuse to support an investigation into a massacre, then they never have to worry about an investigation moving deaths in the “combatant” column to the “civilian” column, which would make them look bad.
On November 3, the Air Force released the findings of the investigation into the U.S. drone strike in Kabul on August 29 that killed Zemerai Ahmadi, an aid worker and father, his three sons, two of his nephews, and three girls who were toddlers. They exonerated themselves.
“The investigation found no violation of law including the law of war,” Air Force Inspector General Sami Said declared. “We did find execution errors.” Combined with “confirmation bias” and “communication breakdowns,” that “regrettably led to civilian casualties.”
But Said is undoubtedly implicated in the coverup of countless war crimes committed by Task Force 9 and various other special operations units, which engage in similar bombing attacks.
Meanwhile, drone whistleblower Daniel Hale is in a communications management unit (CMU) at a medium-security federal prison in Marion, Illinois. He is closely monitored by the FBI and Bureau of Prisons officials so they can prevent him from further commenting on the bloodshed caused by U.S. drone strikes.
Commenting on how the cycle of violence with militant groups continues, Ling stated, "They don’t hate our way of life. They rightfully hate our way of killing. Seventy innocent women and children were needlessly killed in Syria, 10 killed in Afghanistan, and plenty more we will never know about.”
“These are human beings, and we took their lives while using sanitized words with fancy legal footwork to get away with breaking international law. It is wrong. It is terror, and I believe Americans are complicit as long as we remain silent about what is being done in our name.”
“We cannot fight a war on terror with more terror,” Ling concluded.