Pentagon praises a New York Times series that exposed civilian deaths in air war

FILE — Hassan Allay-wi Mohammed Sultan, 16, who was paralyzed in a 2016 air strike aimed at an Islamic State recruiter, near his home in Mosul, Iraq, Nov 1, 2021. Ivor Prickett/The New York Times
An investigation last year by The New York Times revealed a tragic spate of undisclosed civilian deaths from America’s air war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The series was deeply critical of the US government, and on Monday it won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. Then it received some praise from a more unlikely source: the US government.

John Kirby, press secretary for the Defense Department, acknowledged to reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that the investigation was “not comfortable, not easy and not simple to address.”

“We know that we had more work to do to better prevent civilian harm, and we’re doing that work,” Kirby said. “We knew that we had made mistakes; we’re trying to learn from those mistakes. And we knew that we weren’t always as transparent about those mistakes as we should be.”

The Times series, which included several articles and multimedia presentations, drew on a hidden Pentagon archive containing confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties since 2014. Among several findings, it revealed flawed intelligence and the imprecise use of drones and bombs that had been presented to the public as highly reliable and precise.

In several cases, the Times found, US military officials worked to shield civilian deaths from public view, offering misleading assessments that hid the true toll of errant drone strikes.

“I cannot say that this process was pleasant,” Kirby said of the coverage. “But I guess that’s the whole point. It’s not supposed to be. That’s what a free press at its very best does. It holds us to account.”

In his remarks, Kirby also acknowledged the special citation awarded by the Pulitzer board to the Ukrainian journalists covering the current invasion by forces controlled by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It’s tough to read, tough to watch,” Kirby said of the Ukrainians’ coverage. “But you know what? It should be, based on what Putin is doing. And the bravery and skill that they are showing every day is truly inspiring.”

Kirby was appointed to his role on the first day of the Biden administration. He previously served as press secretary for the Pentagon and the State Department in the Obama administration.

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