WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is expected on Wednesday to make his first public comments about a U.S. airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children, Pentagon officials said.
Mr. Austin, who became secretary earlier this year after the Biden administration began, received a briefing on Tuesday about the strike and the military’s handling of it from Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, which oversaw the air war in Syria. The Pentagon has scheduled a news conference for 2:30 p.m.
The defense secretary requested the briefing after reading an investigative report published over the weekend by The New York Times detailing the strike and allegations that top officers and civilian officials had sought to conceal the casualties.
On Monday, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, declined to comment on details of the strike, a bombing at Baghuz, Syria, on March 18, 2019, that was part of the final battle against Islamic State fighters in a remnant of a once-sprawling religious state across Iraq and Syria. It was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the yearslong war against ISIS but had never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military.
Several options are available to Mr. Austin. He could order a new investigation into the strike, which was carried out by a shadowy, classified Special Operations unit called Task Force 9, as well as into the handling of the task force’s investigation into the strike by higher military headquarters and the Defense Department inspector general. He also could endorse the task force’s findings and General McKenzie’s review of the incident.
The task force investigated the strike afterward and acknowledged that four civilians were killed, but also concluded there had been no wrongdoing in the unit. In October 2019, the task force sent its findings to the military headquarters in Baghdad, as well as to the Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla.
But the command in Baghdad failed to review and close out the inquiry, and Central Command did not follow up and remind the Baghdad command to do so, Capt. Bill Urban, the Central Command spokesman, said on Wednesday before Mr. Austin’s briefing.
As a result, senior military officials in Iraq or Florida never reviewed the incident, and the investigation technically remained an open case until the Times investigation.
“Should we have followed up? Yes,” Captain Urban said in a telephone interview, blaming the mishap on “an administrative oversight.”
The Times investigation showed that the death toll from the strike, which killed an estimated 80 people, was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the bombing as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike.
In an email to the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring, the legal officer who witnessed the strike warned that “senior ranking U.S. military officials intentionally and systematically circumvented the deliberate strike process,” and that there was a good chance that “the highest levels of government remained unaware of what was happening on the ground.”
The Times investigation found that the bombing by Air Force F-15 attack jets had been called in by Task Force 9, made up largely of the U.S. Army’s elite Delta Force. The task force was in charge of ground operations in Syria. Military sources who spoke to The Times said the secretive task force circumvented oversight by claiming the vast majority of its strikes required immediate action to protect allied troops from imminent threat. Often, military officers said, no imminent threat was present.
Last week, after The Times sent its findings to U.S. Central Command, the command acknowledged the attack for the first time. In a statement it said that the 80 deaths were justified because the task force had launched a self-defense strike against a group of fighters who were an imminent threat to allied forces on the ground.
Key Findings From the Baghuz Airstrike Investigation
Uncovering the truth. Over several months, The New York Times pieced together the details of a 2019 airstrike in Baghuz, Syria, one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State. Here are the key findings from the investigation:
Central Command told The Times that the strike had included three guided bombs: a 500-pound bomb that hit the initial group and two 2,000-pound bombs that targeted the people fleeing the initial blast. This week the command corrected itself, saying all three bombs were 500-pound munitions.
The command said the three strikes 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.
Human rights advocates expressed outrage this week at the strike and the military’s handling of it, and demanded that Congress open an independent investigation.
“Clearly, the U.S. military isn’t going to fix it,” said Sarah Holewinski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch and a former senior adviser on human rights to the military’s Joint Staff. “The Pentagon has never prioritized civilian harm. Ever. I’m tired of that talking point.”