A government report found that a year’s worth of records that could include war-crime allegations is missing from the US military’s Middle East operations command center — a period that coincides with an independent watchdog group’s claims of war crimes.

Prayers are recited for the dead before they could be laid into the ground to be buried, as around two hundred people attend a mass funeral for the ten civilians killed by a US drone strike said to be targeting ISIS-K militants, in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 30, 2021. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Pentagon is not retaining comprehensive records of alleged war crimes in its global military operations as required by the Defense Department’s own policies, according to a declassified version of a government report reviewed by us

The report found that an entire year’s worth of records that could include such allegations has gone missing from the military’s command center overseeing operations in the Middle East — a period that coincides with an independent watchdog group’s claims of war crimes committed in the region.

Government investigators found evidence of at least forty-seven allegations of US military war crimes between 2012 and 2022 as the United States waged an air and ground war against the Islamic State in the Middle East and Africa. But a significant portion of information about alleged war crimes during that time was missing.

Military personnel were not able to provide records of potential war-crime allegations from the subcommand center overseeing operations in Iraq and Syria for all of 2015, when President Barack Obama oversaw thousands of air strikes in the countries. And records that would have detailed allegations in 2017 were missing from the military’s Middle East command center.

That year, Amnesty International accused pro-Iraqi government forces — led by the US military under the direction of President Donald Trump — of potentially committing war crimes amid the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of civilians in the Iraqi city of Mosul.

“While we have not yet had an opportunity to review the GAO [Government Accountability Office] report, we find it concerning if [the Defense Department] does not track or report on commission of war crimes,” said Daphne Eviatar, director for security with human rights at Amnesty International USA. “While in some cases [the Defense Department] has acknowledged civilian harm, it almost never acknowledges whether war crimes were committed or whether the incidents were investigated as potential war crimes.”

The revelations come from the nonpartisan GAO’s investigation of military recordkeeping. The analysis looks at a time period that began during Obama’s second term, as his administration created a “kill list” and ramped up drone strikes, whose casualty rates were shrouded in secrecy. GAO investigators also looked at Trump’s term and the first half of President Joe Biden’s term.

The GAO report homed in on Africa and the Middle East due to the “kinetic strike operations” that the US military conducted in the regions from January 2012 through December 2022 as part of its war against the Islamic State.

The probe was a response to a Defense Department inspector general investigation and a New York Times report that found deficiencies in how — and whether — the Pentagon tracked alleged war crimes.

The Times report focused on a 2019 US bombing in Syria that killed more than sixty civilians — mostly women and children — that was actively covered up and never independently investigated by the US military.

GAO investigators noted that while they found scores of war-crime allegations inside the military bureaucracy, the major military commands admitted they do not keep comprehensive records providing a full picture of the situation.

“Several components have not retained reports of alleged law of war violations as required by [Defense Department] guidance because there is no system to comprehensively retain such reports,” the report said. “Without a system to comprehensively retain records of allegations of law of war violations, [Defense Department] leadership may not be well positioned to fully implement the law of war.”

The GAO report found key failures in two Defense Department command centers — CENTCOM, which oversees the Middle East and parts of Asia, and AFRICOM, which oversees Africa.

Between 2014 and 2023, the Defense Department launched nearly forty thousand air strikes in the two command areas. Those two command centers provided GAO records of at least forty-seven documented allegations of potential war crimes that took place between January 2012 and December 2022.

Investigators did not try to determine the validity of those alleged “law-of-war violations,” and noted that there could be other allegations that weren’t identified.

“We found that the alleged law-of-war violations obtained may not represent the entire universe of alleged violations, but we are not able to determine what that universe is,” the report stated.

The Department of Defense notes that the law of war is based on treaties and international laws applicable to the United States. The United Nations defines war crimes as, among other activities, killing civilians, torture, sexual violence, wanton destruction of civilian property, and taking hostages.

According to the report, key information was missing from the office overseeing military operations in Iraq and Syria, which has reportedly seen nearly thirty-five thousand air strikes from US-led forces since the United States began bombing the area in 2014.

GAO noted that multiple Defense Department policies require proper war-crime recordkeeping. That includes the Defense Department’s Law of War Program, which requires the military to “maintain a central collection of information on reportable incidents.”

The report did not find instances of retaliation against military members who reported potential war crimes in the AFRICOM and CENTCOM areas. But it did note that the Defense Department’s inspector general reported one case of retaliation during the time frame.

“An investigation found that both the alleged reprisal and overarching alleged law of war violation were not substantiated,” the report noted.

CENTCOM

The Defense Department divides the world into six separate command zones and assigns a call name to each.

Of the forty-seven total reports of alleged war crimes the GAO found in its report, all but one took place under CENTCOM, which oversees operations in the “central” area of the globe, including interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. According to investigators, CENTCOM officials appeared to routinely lose or misplace records of war-crime allegations.

The subcommand center overseeing operations in Iraq and Syria faced seventeen reported allegations of war crimes between 2012 and 2022, but only had summary-level records of two of the allegations on hand. In fact, the subcommand center couldn’t find any reports at all from 2015.

“Officials said that they could not locate [the] records and their current existence and locations are unknown,” the report found. “As a result we could not determine the circumstances of the two allegations or if they were committed by U.S. personnel.”

Officials said they did not know why there were no records from 2015, but said it may be due to a limited military presence in the area before 2016.

In October 2015, amid growing revelations and outcry over Obama’s drone war, US forces bombed a Doctors without Borders–run hospital in Afghanistan, killing twenty-two people. The incident was later described as a “mission that went wrong from start to finish,” and resulted in sixteen US military personnel being punished via “administrative actions.”

CENTCOM was also missing documents tracking potential war crimes for 2017, for which officials provided no explanation.

“CENTCOM retained records of alleged law of war violations for 2012 through 2016 and 2018 through 2022, but did not have all records for 2017,” noted the GAO report. “CENTCOM officials did not know why a document tracking potential alleged law of war violations for 2017 was unavailable.”

In July 2017, Amnesty International claimed it had documented more than four hundred civilian deaths in forty-five attacks that year in Mosul by the Iraqi government or US-backed forces, and noted that its tally was “very likely to be an underestimate.”

When GAO first requested documents from CENTCOM, investigators received thirty-seven reports of war-crime allegations. Later, the Defense Department’s inspector general provided five more reports, explaining they had not been included because CENTCOM joint operation centers do not usually receive those kinds of reports. Four additional reports were sent to the GAO from two other command centers.

AFRICOM

GAO investigators also scrutinized AFRICOM, a Germany-based command of two thousand people that has spearheaded incursions in Libya and Somalia as part of war on the Islamic State, and found a single allegation of war crimes between 2012 and 2022.

According to the GAO report, that allegation was related to an unspecified incident that occurred in August 2017.

In 2017, US bombing in Somalia reportedly became “excessive” after Trump signed an executive order that March declaring the southern portion of Somalia an “area of active hostilities.”

“US forces carried out 34 strikes in Somalia in the last nine months of 2017 — more than in the entire five years from 2012 to 2016,” Amnesty International wrote.

The human rights group claimed that the US bombing in Somalia may be considered war crimes.

“Amnesty International uncovered compelling evidence that US air strikes killed a total of 14 civilians and injured eight more, in five attacks that may have violated international humanitarian law and could, in some cases, constitute war crimes,” wrote the group.

The GAO report also noted that AFRICOM’s policy on war-crime reporting “does not fully align” with Defense Department requirements.

Among other concerns, the report noted that current AFRICOM policy failed to define what exactly would qualify as “credible information” about a potential war-crime violation, justifying an investigation into the matter. AFRICOM also failed to define “reportable incidents,” or initial reports of potential wartime law violations.

GAO investigators also called out the command center’s convoluted and inefficient process for reporting war-crimes allegations.

“By waiting for formal investigations to conclude before determining whether an allegation is supported by credible information, AFRICOM risks failing to report reportable incidents in a timely manner,” the report states.

AFRICOM command last updated its war crime–reporting policies in 2014, and AFRICOM officials admitted that they had failed to update it because “other priorities took precedence over updating its policy,” the report stated.

AFRICOM officials said that although their current policy is outdated, it still abided by the proper Defense Department policies. The GAO report disagreed.

“Without a current policy aligned to DOD requirements, AFRICOM officials may not be reporting all alleged law-of-war violations as required,” the report stated. “As a result, AFRICOM leadership may not be fully aware of all such allegations within their command or be in a position to forward reportable incidents to senior DOD leadership as required.”

No “Comprehensive Set of Records”

The new GAO report, released February 13, is based on a classified report the agency provided to the Department of Defense in December 2023 after it scrutinized records and interviewed officials from across the Defense Department.

GAO investigators didn’t just limit their criticisms to specific command centers. They found that the Defense Department as a whole lacked a unified system to track potential war crimes across the entire agency, instead leaving tracking to individual operations across the world.

“No single entity above the combatant commands retains a comprehensive set of records for either reportable incidents or those found to be unsupported by credible information,” noted their report.

A core part of the GAO report focused on law-of-war training for military members from each branch.

According to the Pentagon’s wartime engagement policies, all military members must receive training on when to engage with a potential enemy threat and how to minimize civilian deaths.

One official from the CENTCOM subcommand center overseeing Iraq and Syria told GAO representatives that the predeployment training was “not the best, but it covered all of the necessary points,” and that military members deployed for war “would know how to identify and report a law-of-war violation.”

As part of its report, the GAO issued just two recommendations to the Defense Department: the secretary of defense should ensure that AFRICOM updates its guidance on reporting allegations of war crimes; and that the secretary of defense ensures the implementation of a comprehensive recordkeeping system for all war-crime allegations.

You can subscribe to David Sirota’s investigative journalism project, the Lever, here.

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