What we know about a 2019 U.S. airstrike in Syria and its alleged cover-up

This weekend, The New York Times published a story about what it describes as a cover-up by the U.S. military of an airstrike that killed as many as 80 civilians. It took place in Syria in 2019, and The Times says it is one of the deadliest accidental strikes on civilians in years. Dave Philipps, military correspondent for The New York Times, joins Nick Schifrin with more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Pentagon said today that it will request more information about a U.S. airstrikes in Syria that killed civilians in 2019. A New York Times investigation describes a cover-up by the military in one of the worst incidents involving civilians in years.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In March 2019, the U.S. military and its Syrian allies attacked the remnants of ISIS in a small corner of Syria called Baghouz. The U.S. military said it was supporting its allies on the ground, the mostly Kurdish SDF, or Syrian Defense Forces, against 200 ISIS fighters, including women and child combatants.

    On March 18, 2019 U.S. aircraft heavily bombed those ISIS fighters, whom the U.S. says were threatening to overrun the SDF, and had already caused 30 casualties. The U.S. military says it launched an investigation that initially determined the bombs had killed four civilians and wounded eight, that they were in legitimate self-defense, and proportional.

    But The New York Times' investigation found that regional commanders immediately knew there were as many as 70 civilian casualties, and the Defense Department since then — quote — "concealed the strike."

    Joining me now is one of The Times' reporters, Dave Philipps.

    Dave, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We have just gone through what happened. Your investigation, what do you believe regional commanders knew about the strike and when?

  • Dave Philipps, The New York Times:

    Here is what we know.

    There was a secretive classified ground unit that called in this airstrike. And it claimed it was a self-defense strike. But there was another part of the U.S. military, an Air Force drone hovering overhead, and it was taking in the scene in high-definition color video.

    And so people back in the command center were looking at this video. And they didn't see really any combat. What they saw was a very large group of what appeared to be mostly women and children essentially seeking shelter in a low-lying area.

    Now, that doesn't mean that there wasn't fighting somewhere relatively nearby, but certainly not in the immediate area. And then, without warning, they saw an F-15 fighter jet streak across and drop some very large bombs right in the middle of this crowd.

    And when some of the survivors tried to stumble out of the aftermath, the jets came back through and killed them as well. What was interesting is, immediately, when people saw in video in the command center, they were stunned and thought, that was a really bad strike. That may have even been a war crime. We need to report it and have it investigated.

    And what people in that center found is, it was never investigated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Who was sounding the alarm that this was a possible war crime? What was the response? And what has happened to that person since?

  • Dave Philipps:

    The person whose job it was to sound the alarm was a legal officer, a military lawyer in the Air Operations Command Center.

    He was one of the people who saw this high-definition footage. It was reported to him by other people as a concern. And the regulations required that he reports it up the chain of command.

    When he did that, essentially, time and time again, he was told, we're not going to do anything about this. Don't worry about it. Just drop it.

    This officer, he is a lieutenant colonel named Dean Korsak. He refused to drop it. He tried to take it to the Air Force's version of the FBI. They wouldn't do anything. And so he eventually took it to the independent watchdog of the military, the Department of Defense inspector general, and said, you have got to do something with this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And military officials who I talk to point out, look, we did be investigation known as a 15-6.

    But your investigation found that — quote — "At nearly every step threat, military made moves that concealed the strike."

    Why do you write that?

  • Dave Philipps:

    When the report went to the inspector general's office, the inspector general also thought, oh, my gosh, this is a really horrendous event, and it needs to be independently investigated by criminal investigators. That is what our rules require.

    And yet it wasn't done. The investigation that was done was an investigation done by the same unit that called in the strike. Essentially, they are grading their own homework. And so, maybe surprisingly, what they decided is, hey, yes, this was a mistake, but not a big deal.

    It was never reported up to higher authorities. It was never looked at independently outside of that unity. And no one was ever disciplined for it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have been covering the military for 15 years now. There have been stories for many years about the military sharing less information than in the past on deployments, sharing less incite on how the wars are going, especially in Afghanistan over the last few years.

    How big of an issue is this, whether the military is sharing all of the information that the public needs to grade and understand what it's doing?

  • Dave Philipps:

    You know, what is funny is that the military during the war against ISIS said that it was creating the most humane and transparent air war ever, you know, that they were going to be extremely careful, follow all sorts of rules, and if a single civilian report was — report a single civilian happened, they would investigate it and report it publicly.

    But what we found is that they sort of did the opposite. They used the bureaucracy to make it appear that everything was OK, even when they hadn't done any actual work to make that assertion with any accuracy.

    And so, in a lot of ways the new way of waging war is a lot like the old way. The military is not very transparent, and it is not very responsive to the public.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dave Philipps with The New York Times, thank you very much.

  • Dave Philipps:

    Thank you.

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