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Jacobs Questions Military Leaders on Drone Strikes and Safeguards to Avoid Civilian Deaths

Washington, September 29, 2021 | Will McDonald (12028454864)

Washington, D.C. - During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Afghanistan, Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-CA-53) questioned top military leadership on the August 29th drone strike that killed aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and nine of his family members. The Department of Defense has publicly apologized for the strike, saying it was a “tragic mistake,” and a review is currently underway by the Department of Defense Inspector General. (Hearing information and full video here.)

The hearing witnesses included Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin; General Mark Milley, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., Commander of U.S. Central Command. 

Jacobs questioned military leadership on the safeguards in place for the U.S. drone program, what lessons the Department of Defense has learned from this latest strike, and what precautions will be taken to prevent future civilian deaths.

Video of Congresswoman Jacobs’ questions here.


Congresswoman Sara Jacobs: I’d like to follow up on the questions regarding the August 29th drone strike that killed Zemari Ahmadi — a worker for a Southern California-based aid group — and nine of his family members, including seven children. General McKenzie, you called the strike a “tragic mistake,” and I think we can all agree with that characterization.

This is an open hearing, so I’m not going to ask about the specific intelligence that led to the strike. But General Milley, you said, even after the truth was revealed, that there was “reasonable certainty that the target was valid.” So, I would like to know: do you have the same level of confidence in the intelligence that you have for similar strikes carried out under DoD’s authority?

General Milley:  Yes, I do. I mean, intelligence is not perfect. The intel, as Representative Johnson just said, Bice just said, it's never perfect. We're not going to get perfection in the world of intelligence. They speak in terms of probabilistic language -- what is more likely than not. And I believe that we have good reason to have confidence in our intelligence systems. They're not perfect, but we have good reason to have confidence in them. And I think that's been expressed over time. And the accuracy and precision of these strikes.

Congresswoman Jacobs: I understand…

General Milley: This one strike was bad. It was tragic. It was horrible. But that is not to say that the intelligence system as a whole is wrong. 

Congresswoman Jacobs: But given that we’ve actually had multiple of these mistakes that we already know about, including the AC-130 gunship attack in 2015 that destroyed a MSF hospital and killed 42 civilians, what assurances can you give us and the American people that our intelligence and drone program have adequate safeguards? Secretary Austin, you said that the department endeavored to learn from this latest mistake. What have you learned?

Secretary Austin: Thanks. Again, I would just remind you that I have directed a review of this operation, and so I won't make any comments on specifics here, because that review is ongoing. But in terms of our commitment to learning from all of our operations, we remain committed to doing that. And we are specifically concerned whenever there is an inadvertent loss of life and injury to civilians. And so we take that very seriously. And we hold ourselves accountable for that.

Congresswoman Jacobs: We in this committee will be looking forward to seeing the results of that review, and also having accountability. 

General McKenzie, yesterday when asked by Senator Mark Kelly about “over-the-horizon counterterrorism,” you said, “As we go forward and our ability to create the ecosystem that allows you to see on the ground and put it together is going to be harder in places like Afghanistan.” I know many of my colleagues have asked about what this means about our ability to counter groups like ISIS-K. I have a different question: What does that mean for our ability to prevent civilian casualties, so that we do not have another drone strike like the one that took place in Kabul? And if the ability to prevent civilian casualties becomes harder, will you and CENTCOM take extra precautions in selecting target packages or how are you planning to deal with this extra uncertainty?

General McKenzie: Representative, thank you for the question. The strike that was undertaken in Kabul on the 29th was a self-defense strike. It was taken because we believed there was an imminent attack developing against our forces at HKIA. So that's very different than the type of strike we would undertake in an over-the-horizon scenario. And the principal differences would be this: we would not be under the acute pressure of time, because we thought the attack was imminent. Because if we're striking a target in Afghanistan, there's actually no imminency to that attack, you know if we're talking weeks and maybe months rather than hours or minutes. So you have the opportunity to develop pattern of life, you have the opportunity to apply all the other disciplines of intelligence that can help us, whether that’s signal image, human intelligence, and we would work hard to try to reconstitute that to a degree. And I'll talk more about that in a future classified session with you. But it would be wrong to believe that the strike in Kabul, which I've acknowledged went badly wrong, is the prototype that we would employ for past or future over-the-horizon strikes.

Congresswoman Jacobs: Well, thank you. I will look forward to working with you all to make sure that we do that well. And I will note your comments on imminence next time we have questions about War Powers with some of the strikes. But with that, I will yield back.