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U.S. cover-up of deadly drone strike

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U.S. cover-up of deadly drone strike

Recent reporting has revealed that the U.S. military failed to conduct an independent investigation into a previously-unpublicized 2019 drone strike in Baghuz, Syria, that killed 80 people — 16 confirmed ISIS militants and 64 civilians, including dozens of women and children

The report, published yesterday by the New York Times, depicts a lack of internal accountability and a broken system of internal incentives for decision-makers and legal authorities within a U.S. military increasingly dependent on drone strikes as a tool of waging war. 

The ambiguous legality of drone strikes — and the flawed process of approving and investigating them if misconduct is suspected — further complicates a dark and ugly side of U.S. military power that few Americans are aware of. 

 On March 18, 2019, during the final days of the U.S.-led fight against ISIS, three bombs were dropped on a large group of people in the town of Baghuz. 

The attack was launched despite drone footage that clearly showed the presence of civilians in the crowd. 

U.S. military personnel watching the drone feed from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar watched the bombing on a live feed from a drone. 

One analyst wrote, "Who dropped that?" in a secure chat system used by drone operators. A legal officer flagged the strike as a potential war crime to be investigated. 

A report by the Department of Defense's inspector general was "stripped" of any mention of the strike, and it noted that no independent investigation into the incident had taken place. 

One former member of the inspector general's office told the NYT: "Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it... It makes you lose faith in the system when people are trying to do what's right, but no one in positions of leadership wants to hear it."

 The airstrike was called in by a classified special operations unit known as Task Force 9, which was in charge of on-ground operations in Syria..

 Task Force 9 was able to call in drone strikes without the standard legal and strategic oversight if Task Force members invoked an "inherent right to self-defense." 

While Task Force 9 played primarily an advisory role in Syria, ~80% of all airstrikes it requested were justified by self-defense. Officials interviewed by the NYT stated that the post-mortem strike assessments were flawed as they involved input from the units that called the strikes in themselves. 

The Human Rights Watch has reported that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in the fight against the Islamic State killed at least 7,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria since Sept. 2014. 

The coalition has previously paid compensation of ~$80,000 to the families of civilians killed in a "Jan. 2019 attack that killed 11 civilians, including four children from the same family." 

The U.S. military publicly acknowledged the deadly strike for the first time in its response to inquiries from the NYT and other media agencies. U.S. Central Command stated that the bombs had killed 16 fighters and four civilians. Of the remaining 60 people killed by American bombs on March 18, 2019, the U.S. military concluded that they weren't sure if they were civilians "in part because women and children in the Islamic State sometimes took up arms."

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