This roundup, curated by ReThink Media, looks at how the media is talking about drone warfare (and related topics) and what stories are being told.

With little transparency from governments on this topic, this roundup aims to be as comprehensive as possible, identifying breaking news, trends, developing stories, or interesting narratives. Rethink Media also use media coverage to compile a snapshot of strikes each week. The short version can be read here.

Secret US strike unit systematically broke civilian protection rules and routinely killed civilians in Syria
A secret US strike unit leading the anti-ISIS air campaign in Syria systematically circumvented the rules of engagement and routinely carried out strikes that killed civilians, four current and former military officials that worked with the team told the New York Times.
The strike unit – known as Talon Anvil – took extraordinary measures to hide widespread civilian harm being caused by the air campaign, including directing drone cameras away from targets shortly before strikes occurred.
Even still, the Pentagon’s classified data shows the rate of civilian casualties during the air campaign in Syria was ten times higher than in similar operations in Afghanistan, according to a former official who viewed the data.
Talon Anvil is the same unit that ordered the 2019 strike in Baghuz Syria that the New York Times reported killed about 70 civilians, many of whom were women and children.
Alarmed CIA and Air Force officials raised concerns over Talon Anvil’s conduct to their superiors and the Pentagon Inspector General but were ignored. In at least one strike, an Air Force official’s report of dozens of civilian casualties was ignored despite the US-led coalition’s commitment to investigate all reports of possible civilian harm.
Talon Anvil’s targeting practices were so brazen that pilots sometimes refused to carry out orders to drop bombs on densely populated areas. Even some of the unit’s own members occasionally refused to participate in strikes that seemed to clearly target civilians.
In one strike in March 2017, the unit ordered an attack on a residential building despite having no confirmation of ISIS presence there. “As the smoke cleared … cameras showed women and children staggering out of the partly collapsed building, some missing limbs, some dragging the dead,” the Times reported. [New York Times/ Dave Philipps, Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti]

US-coalition shoots down drone in Syria
A British warplane shot down a drone demonstrating “hostile intent” near the US military base at At Tanf in southeast Syria on December 14th.
A Pentagon official told Fox News that the military believes the drone was launched by Iranian-backed Shia militias.
The base At Tanf previously came under attack from explosive-laden drones in October. The military reported no casualties. [Fox News/ Jennifer Griffin and Edmund DeMarche] [NBC News/ Courtney Kube] [Reuters]

No US troops will be held accountable for the infamous Kabul drone strike
None of the military personnel involved in the Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul that killed an aid worker and nine of his family members will face any kind of punishment, the Pentagon said on December 13th.
The decision comes after a Pentagon investigation into the strike cleared all personnel involved of any negligence or wrongdoing.
After initially claiming that the strike was “righteous” and killed would-be ISIS-K terrorists, the Pentagon only acknowledged that the strike killed only civilians, including seven children, after the New York Times published an investigation. [New York Times/ Eric Schmitt] [Washington Post/ Karoun Demirjian and Alex Horton] [The Hill/ Ellen Mitchell] [CBS News/ Eleanor Watson]
Tweet: “No one will be punished for a US drone strike that killed Afghan civilians, including 7 children. But Daniel Hale is in jail for *telling us* that US drones kill civilians & revealing US actions that amount to war crimes. This is what we call justice.” [Twitter/ Assal Rad]

Civilian Casualties Files
A major new two-part investigation from the New York Times’ Azmat Khan sheds new light on the “unrelenting toll” that the US drone campaign and airstrikes took on civilians in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Khan obtained the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties during the air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq through FOIA litigation. Far from being the “most precise air campaign in history,” as President Obama claimed, the documents show that the US military regularly killed civilians with impunity.
In addition to obtaining the reports, Khan did what the US military did not when assessing civilian casualties – visit strike sites and interview survivors. She found that allegations of civilian casualties were often wrongly dismissed and that even when civilian deaths were acknowledged, they were often significantly undercounted.
In one strike in Syria in 2016, the US military acknowledged killing 24 civilians it claims were “intermixed” with ISIS fighters. In fact, the Times confirmed that the strike killed 120 people, all of whom were civilians, many of them children.
The investigation shows that civilian deaths occurred for a range of reasons: flawed intelligence, confirmation bias, misidentifying or failing to detect civilians, or simply because the military deemed that their deaths would be acceptable and “proportionate” with the military objective.
Not a single file includes a finding of wrongdoing. An effort within the military to find lessons learned to prevent future civilian harm was suppressed. An analyst who captures strike imagery even told the Times that superior officers would often “tell the cameras to look somewhere else” because “they knew if they’d just hit a bad target.”
Responding to the report, a Pentagon spokesperson acknowledged that preventing civilian deaths is not just a “moral imperative” but a strategic issue because civilian casualties can fuel recruiting for extremist groups. [New York Times/ Azmat Khan]

“The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars”
The civilian casualty assessment reports obtained by the Times “can show us only so much,” Khan writes in part two of her investigative series. “They tell us what the air war looked like from above, to the officials carrying it out. I knew that to fully understand what was happening, I also needed to see it from the ground.”
Comparing her experience reporting from Syria and Iraq to the military’s assessments, she wrote that the Pentagon’s system for evaluating strikes “seemed to function almost by design to not only mask the true toll of American airstrikes but also legitimize their expanded use.”
Over the course of five years, Khan visited hundreds of strike sites, interviewing survivors and putting names to the figures documented in the Pentagon’s records. “We were the sacrifice,” Mosul resident Mudhar Abdul Qadir told her. “We paid the price with our bodies.”
“What I care about the most, more than anything else, is to help prevent what happened to my family from happening to anyone else,” Emad Tariq Khalil Ibrahim told Khan.
In 2017, the military observed three children on the roof of a residential home in Syria that they believed was being used by ISIS to manufacture weapons. Knowing that children lived there, they decided to strike the home anyway on the grounds that the military advantage outweighed the worth of the children’s lives.
But the home was not an ISIS weapons manufacturing facility. The strike accomplished nothing other than killing the children, along with eight of their family members, and disabling an infant girl next door.
In the years after the strike, the children’s grandmother, Katbeeah Ahmed, gave the United States the benefit of the doubt, believing the strike had been a random mistake. After being told that the military had seen her grandchildren at the home, “her face changed” and she began to weep.
“I am on fire now. Why did you kill them? They were innocent. They didn’t do anything,” she said. “They were turned into just flesh.” [New York Times Magazine/ Azmat Khan]

“Documents Reveal Basic Flaws in Pentagon Dismissals of Civilian Casualty Claims”
A New York Times investigation of confidential Pentagon documents found that the military repeatedly dismissed allegations of civilian casualties based on flawed reviews of evidence.
The Times was able to detect many of the mistakes using widely available public resources like simple Google Maps and Twitter searches.
The investigation raises further questions about the Pentagon’s capability and willingness to accurately assess civilian casualties from its air wars.
“I’ll tell you what it is: That’s negligence,” a former Pentagon senior intelligence analyst told the Times. “That is plain and simple. It is the most basic level of investigation that they should be doing, and not to do it is completely negligent.”
Another former official told the Times that the Pentagon’s review process for allegations of civilian casualties is designed to get “ahead of the narrative” and is “certainly not about doing anything differently to prevent harm.” [New York Times/ Azmat Khan, Haley Willis, Christoph Koettl, Christiaan Triebert and Lila Hassan]

“How negligence, systemic issues lead to civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes”
Larry Lewis, the State Department’s former senior adviser on civilian protection, spoke to PBS NewsHour about the need to hold senior military officials accountable for systematic failures to protect civilians following the Aug. 29 Kabul drone strike and revelations from the New York Times about how US air strikes repeatedly killed civilians in Syria.
In analyzing thousands of strikes, Lewis said he’s seen the same issues that led to the Kabul strike “over and over again.”
“Negligence is defined as a lack of care, and that’s exactly what we see,” he said. “There’s no leadership on this issue.”
PBS NewsHour also interviewed CentCom Commander Gen. Frank McKenzie, who denied that there are any systemic issues with the military’s strike process and attributed the Kabul strike to the “inherently messy” nature of war. [PBS NewsHour/ Nick Schifrin and Ali Rogan]

Jeremy Scahill: “The mysterious case of Joe Biden and the future of drone wars”
While Biden has substantially reduced US drone strikes, civilian deaths and the lack of accountability from his known strikes suggests “a long-standing mechanism for self-exoneration remains entrenched,” Jeremy Scahill writes. [Commentary/ The Intercept/ Jeremy Schahill]

US shoots down drones on Soleimani assassination anniversary
On the two-year anniversary of the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, the US military said it shot down two armed drones that were approaching US troops in Iraq.
Footage provided to Reuters by the US-led military coalition in Iraq showed what an official said was debris from the destroyed drones with writing visible on the wing of one reading “Soleimani’s revenge.”
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, the US military has blamed similar previous attacks on Iranian-aligned militias in Iraq. [Reuters] [Military Times/ Rachel Nostrant] [Business Insider/ Ryan Pickrell]

Two years after the Soliemani strike, Iran vows revenge unless Trump is put on trial
On the two-year anniversary of the US drone assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, President Ebrahim Raisi vowed to take revenge unless Trump is put on trial for the killing.
The 2019 strike brought the US and Iran to the brink of war, with Iran responding by launching a missile attack on a US military base in Iraq. No US soldiers were killed in the attack, but many suffered serious brain injuries and psychological trauma. [AFP] [Reuters] [The Hill/ Mychael Schnell] [Newsweek/ Katie Wermus]
Hawkish voices, such as former Senator Joe Lieberman celebrated the assassination on the anniversary and argued for additional pressure on Iran. [Commentary/ NBC News/ Joe Lieberman and Mark Wallace]

“Wall of drones:” Police contractor pitched tasing migrants from drones
A major start-up tech company pushed for the deployment of a “wall of drones” armed with tasers to attack migrants along the southern border in 2018, the Intercept reports.
The company, Brinc, currently provides modified small drones to police departments across the country and is funded by several major Silicon Valley investors. [The Intercept/ Sam Biddle]

Read the full Roundup here here, here and here.


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