By Natasha Bertrand and Oren Liebermann, CNN
(CNN) — Democratic lawmakers are demanding that the Pentagon disclose the findings of its ongoing investigation into a US airstrike in Syria in May that may have killed a civilian, according to a letter Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chris van Hollen and Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday.
US Central Command launched an official investigation into the May 3 drone strike late last month after a preliminary civilian casualty credibility assessment determined that there were sufficient grounds to more thoroughly probe whether a civilian had been killed, rather than a senior al Qaeda leader as Central Command initially claimed.
“While we recognize that this specific incident is part of an ongoing investigation, this does not negate the need for you to provide answers to Congress on the processes to implement the CHMR-AP,” the lawmakers wrote, referring to the Pentagon’s Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan.
That policy was developed in 2022 after a botched US drone strike in Kabul killed 10 civilians in August 2021.
“Given the significant public interest in this strike, we urge you to publicly release as much of the investigation as possible,” the lawmakers wrote, providing a deadline of July 19.
In their letter, the lawmakers ask why it took two weeks for CENTCOM to begin assessing whether a civilian was killed in the airstrike. As CNN has reported, a civilian casualty assessment was only launched after The Washington Post presented information to CENTCOM about the strike potentially killing a civilian instead of the intended target.
“[I]t is unclear why CENTCOM waited for weeks to fully investigate this matter, and why the tweet announcing that CENTCOM had targeted a senior AQ leader remains online without recognition that this incident is now under investigation,” the lawmakers wrote.
As CNN first reported, the senior general in charge of US forces in the Middle East, General Erik Kurilla, ordered that Central Command announce on Twitter that a senior al Qaeda leader had been targeted by the drone strike – despite not yet having confirmation of who was actually killed.
“We are particularly troubled by reports that CENTCOM Commander General Erik Kurilla was personally involved in the decision to tweet that CENTCOM had targeted a Senior AQ leader, without confirming the victim’s identity,” the lawmakers wrote, citing CNN’s reporting.
“By announcing the strike before confirming who DoD actually killed and delaying the process of opening an investigation into reports of civilian deaths, CENTCOM undermined DoD’s and its own credibility and commitment to civilian harm prevention and response,” they added.
As CNN reported in May, the episode raised questions about how thoroughly CENTCOM has implemented the military’s civilian harm mitigation policy – a process for preventing, mitigating and responding to civilian casualties caused by US military operations – since the botched Kabul strike in 2021.
CNN previously reported that there is growing belief inside the Pentagon that the individual killed in the May 3 strike – identified by his family as Loutfi Hassan Mesto, a 56-year-old father of ten – was a farmer with no ties to terrorism.
Mesto’s family told CNN that he had been out grazing his sheep when he was killed. Loutfi never left his village during the Syrian uprisings and did not support any political faction, his brother said.
The lawmakers requested that the Pentagon make the civilian casualty credibility report about the May 3 strike public, and to explain why Kurilla ordered the announcement before knowing who was actually killed.
They also requested more information about the department’s “process for verifying the status and identity of an individual targeted for or killed in a strike,” and asked whether it will commit to providing condolence payments to the family of any civilian killed in the strike.
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