Opinion | Pentagon congratulates New York Times for Pulitzer win over airstrike series

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The New York Times last week received a Pulitzer Prize in international reporting for a series exposing the Pentagon’s failure to minimize civilian casualties in overseas airstrikes or even police its own failures in this critical area.

Then it reeled in a higher honor.

“I also would be remiss if I didn’t also congratulate the staff of the New York Times for the Pulitzer that they won in their coverage of civilian casualties caused by the United States military and military operations,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the next day.

No misattribution there: That was indeed the Pentagon spokesman lauding the Times for reporting that eviscerated the Defense Department’s handling of a central component of its modern arsenal. Nor was Kirby’s tribute a political stunt to highlight failures of the previous administration, as the Times series covered mismanagement spanning the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. “That coverage was — and it still is — not comfortable, not easy, and not simple to address,” Kirby said.

Matt Purdy, Times deputy managing editor for investigative and enterprise reporting, says, “When the target of your reporting compliments your story, your first reaction is ‘Damn, what did we miss?’ ”

A better question: What more could the Times have said? The eight winning stories plumb the airstrikes and their aftermath, from decision-making protocols to official post-strike evaluations to distillations of various errors. The project exposes the underside of an air campaign that hit “full force” in the latter years of the Obama administration, according to the Times.

Among the newspaper’s wide-ranging revelations:

  • Hundreds of civilian deaths have gone uncounted because of Pentagon failures;
  • the Defense Department was negligent, at best, in investigating reports of civilian casualties;
  • the Pentagon hadn’t acknowledged a March 2019 strike that killed civilians in Baghuz, Syria, even though a military analyst said in an internal chat at the time of the bombing: “We just dropped on 50 women and children” (the Times reported this week on an investigation into that strike);
  • a U.S. military strike against an alleged Islamic State operation near the Kabul airport on Aug. 29, 2021, killed 10 civilians, though there was no Islamic State operation afoot, according to a Times investigation that forced the Pentagon to admit a “tragic mistake”;
  • and a culture of impunity coddles airstrike personnel.

“Not a single record provided includes a finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action,” Azmat Khan, an investigative reporter for the New York Times Magazine, wrote in one of the Pulitzer-winning pieces.

Khan’s work on the story started in 2016, when she and journalist Anand Gopal vetted official claims about civilian deaths, visiting the sites of 150 airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition in northern Iraq and focusing on the tragic story of Basim Razzo, a resident of Mosul, Iraq, who lost his wife, daughter, brother and nephew to a misguided 2015 airstrike. He was offered a condolence payment of $15,000. (No thanks, he said.) This December 2021 magazine piece details Khan’s trips to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to interview witnesses to the coalition airstrikes’ devastation. “I mean, we did stuff that the Pentagon didn’t do, basically,” Purdy tells the Erik Wemple Blog.

The anecdotes that Khan presents are a mix of compelling and unsettling. She documents that many of the uncounted civilian casualties are children. In Al Tanak, Iraq, she interviews a woman who lost her daughter, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. Having secured the official report on the airstrike that killed the woman’s relatives — as well as 1,300 other strikes — Khan was able to brief the woman on the rationale for the strike. (Tthe military targeted the residence thinking it was a manufacturing facility for the Islamic State, according to Khan, but the actual Islamic State target was across the street).

Hundreds of witnesses discussed their experiences with Khan, who says that not one was proactively contacted by the U.S. military. That left a Times journalist, in many cases, as the only source of information about the trauma they’d sustained.

Not-for-profit watchdog group Airwars estimates there were between 8,192 and 13,244 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria from U.S.-led coalition actions. The official coalition estimate is 1,417. “The vast majority of victims and survivors of U.S. and coalition airstrikes will never hear any response from those who harmed them,” notes Annie Shiel, senior adviser at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

Reaching those victims and survivors can be complicated. When she went to Shora, Iraq, says Khan, federal police “wanted to, like, follow me around.” Worried that their presence would compromise the ethics of her investigation, Khan shifted topical gears, plying people with questions about health and dental care. “I just did interview after interview about teeth and finally they got bored” and let her proceed without interference, says Khan.

Despite the Pentagon’s kind words this month, Khan says she was “stonewalled on a number of occasions.” She had to sue for records; it took “months and months” to get access to the Qatar-based nerve center that commands air operations in 21 nations, and she struggled to nail down information about airstrikes in Afghanistan.

Whereas the Pentagon issued monthly releases on coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, it provided no such resource for Afghanistan, leaving Khan with few records to pursue. “I got a call once from an official” in Afghanistan, says Khan, who’d requested an embed with troops on the ground that was never granted. The official told her, “ ‘We don’t have any kinetic activity. We don’t do airstrikes.’ ” But her reporting told her that was “not true … I was being lied to,” says Khan.

In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Kirby said that even though the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan, “we are trying to address issues of transparency.” There’s a lot to catch up on: Khan notes that she’d filed Freedom of Information Act requests about the August 2021 Kabul strike that killed 10 civilians, seven of them children. Of the 266 pages that the Pentagon located, 183 were denied in full, seven were partially released and 75 are under review.

Among the more gobsmacking Times findings was the negligence the military displayed when dismissing some complaints of civilian casualties. “In a dozen instances, Pentagon assessors said that a location could not be identified, even though it was easily found on the internet, or they seemed to have just looked in the wrong place,” Khan wrote in a piece documenting that the Pentagon failed to use resources like Google Maps and Wikimapia to vet claims of civilian casualties.

The Pentagon appeared not to want to know about civilian casualties. When presented with that takeaway, Kirby replied, “That’s a pretty blanket kind of statement there. I would say that we take all reports of civilian casualties seriously and we do the best we can to look into them and investigate them with the understanding that not in every case [can we] be as thorough as we want to be.”

Reforms are underway. In January, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive aimed at preventing civilian deaths and revamping airstrike investigations. As the Times reported, the directive was silent on whether the military would itself do the shoe-leather on-site interviews that Khan has done for six years.

Asked whether the Pentagon could take on such a task, Kirby cautioned, “To put the U.S. military on the ground in some of these locations could actually result in more casualties. You could actually escalate the violence and put more innocent civilians at risk.” Site visits by the military are “rarely conducted,” the Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute concluded after studying civilian harm investigations from 2002 to 2015.

Journalists pounce on information vacuums, and Khan won a Pulitzer by filling in gaps the military left in its wake. That doesn’t mean the system is working. Journalists can do only so much. “I don’t think this should be my job,” Khan says.

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