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'We must work harder': Austin promises more transparency following new report on civilian casualties

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged Wednesday that the Pentagon “had more work to do” to prevent civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations and to publicly disclose more information about such strikes.

Austin spoke to reporters at the Pentagon after U.S. Central Command confirmed Tuesday that a U.S. airstrike in Syria killed multiple civilians in 2019. That admission followed a New York Times report Saturday that revealed previously undisclosed details about the airstrike, including attempts by military leaders to cover it up.

In addition to the new scrutiny of the Syria bombing, the Pentagon is still facing criticism for a drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 innocent civilians — including seven children — in August, as the U.S. military was withdrawing from the Taliban-controlled country.

Although an independent Defense Department review released this month concluded the Afghanistan bombing was a mistake, it assessed that the drone strike was not caused by misconduct or negligence, and it declined to recommend any disciplinary action.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Monday that Austin had requested a briefing from Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, on the Syria airstrike.

Austin on Wednesday said he was “committed to adjusting our policies and our procedures to make sure that we improve,” and that he would be “holding all our senior leaders responsible for putting those policies and procedures into effect as we go forward.”

“We do work very hard to avoid causing harm to civilians. Every civilian casualty is a tragedy,” Austin said. “But I would also say that I have no doubt that we can work harder. And I’d go beyond that and say we must work harder.”

He added that the Defense Department needs to be more transparent when it investigates reports of errant strikes.

“The American people deserve to know that we take this issue very seriously, and that we are committed to protecting civilians and getting this right — both in terms of how we execute missions on their behalf and how we talk about them afterward,” Austin said Wednesday.

“We have more work to do in that regard, clearly,” he continued. “And I recognize that, and I’m committed to doing this in full partnership with our military leaders.”

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