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Journalist says U.S. air war against ISIS killed countless civilians in Syria

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in today for Terry Gross. Civilian casualties are sadly common in most armed conflicts, but our guest today, New York Times correspondent Dave Philipps, says the United States' air war against ISIS seems to have been particularly brutal on innocent civilians in Syria. In recent stories, Philipps reports that a top-secret unit of the U.S. military was allowed to pick targets for drone attacks and bombing runs with little oversight, and that as the conflict wore on, it increasingly sidestepped rules to protect noncombatants, ordering airstrikes that killed farmers in their fields, children in the street and families fleeing combat.

Philipps details one particularly horrific bombing in 2019, which appears to have killed as many as 70 women and children. Despite complaints from others in the military and the CIA, Philipps reports, the attacks have been largely unacknowledged by the military, and no one has been disciplined for the civilian deaths. Dave Philipps is a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. His latest book about the Navy SEAL accused of war crimes in Iraq and acquitted of the most serious charges is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs."

Well, Dave Philipps, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, in this war against ISIS, Americans were generally not involved in combat roles, but American forces provided air support in a big way to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. And these weapons dispatched from the sky in the way of drones and bombing raids bring enormous death-dealing power. What has the military generally said about the policies that govern their use, their selection of targets and their care to avoid civilian deaths?

DAVE PHILIPPS: Well, it is pretty astounding how precise America's weapons are now. You can drop a missile or a bomb on a pinhead. And in the course of trying to drive ISIS out of Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2019, the United States dropped about 112,000 bombs and missiles. Now, they said, because they are so precise and they had a deliberative and careful process to strike, that you could do that, you could use that kind of firepower, and avoid civilian casualties. And throughout the war, they continued to say that this was one of the most deliberate and humane air wars in, you know, the history of humankind. And what we found was something very different, that despite all the careful rules and procedures that were put in place, there were a small group of people that were actually running the air war that essentially figured out how to sidestep all those safeguards and were kind of hitting whatever they wanted with very little oversight.

DAVIES: All right. So let's get into this in some detail. You talk about a top-secret unit, a strike cell called Talon Anvil, which operated in the war against ISIS. You want to describe this unit and its mission.

PHILIPPS: Yeah. So first of all, everyone who's listening is probably thinking that Talon Anvil is a really horrible name. It sounds like an Estonian metal group or something. But what it is, in all seriousness, is a small group of very high-level Delta Force operators and a couple other support staff who were in charge of basically picking all of the targets that America's air arsenal would hit. And this is maybe only about 20 people who, from the outside, don't look particularly like elite military at all. You know, they came to work a lot of times in shorts and Crocs or Birkenstocks. They didn't wear any sort of outside regalia of the military. They oftentimes had long hair and beards. And they worked in bland office spaces, first in Iraq and then later in the war in Syria.

But inside those office spaces, the walls were crammed with large flat-screens that showed essentially the views from up to a dozen drones that would be flying over the battle space at any time. And what they were doing was hunting for anything that they could hit - you know, ISIS ammunition storage areas, command centers, groups of fighters - and they launched the vast majority of the strikes, something like 80% or 90%. We don't have the exact number because this small group is totally secret. Except for the eyes of a very few people in the military who had the clearance to know what they were doing, their activities were pretty much hidden.

DAVIES: How did you find out about them if they were so secret?

PHILIPPS: Well, it's - one of the amazing technological things about the air war is that you can have a small, secret group doing the striking, but because of the weapons they were using, there were people all over the globe that with the right security clearances could see it. So you might have Talon Anvil working in a room in Syria picking out targets on screens. But the people who are flying the drones might be young airmen in Nevada and the people who are supplying the intelligence, the men and women who are trained to look at that footage and decide what's on it, they may be in a top-secret base in California. And then the people that are overseeing the whole air war, coordinating all of the drones and jets, they are at an operation center in Qatar. And so there was this whole network of people who saw what was going on, and some of them became very uncomfortable about it. And eventually, a number of them started coming forward, first to the military, but then when they felt they weren't being listened to, that the alarm they were trying to sound wasn't heard, they eventually came to us.

DAVIES: You said that the administration held the position that these were very precisely targeted weapons and that there were procedures in place to make sure that they were hitting the enemy and not innocent civilians. What were the procedures? How is it supposed to work?

PHILIPPS: Yeah. So when I say very precise, you can shoot a hellfire missile from a drone from miles away, target it at a vehicle where you think the enemy is, and you can just hit the hood if you want to disable the vehicle but not kill the people inside. The technology is there to make that happen. So when your technology is that precise, the weak link becomes the human decision-making. And the military tried to put in place this series of safeguards to make sure that that decision-making was as good as possible.

So if you were going to hit a target, first you were required to observe it for a certain amount of time to make sure there were no civilians around, that the building that you're hitting or the vehicle actually had evidence that there was enemy activity there. And then there was a - what they call a target engagement authority. Basically, a commander who made the call decided, OK, this fits within the rules of what we're allowed to hit, and that commander might literally have a lawyer sitting next to him who was familiar with all the rules of engagement and can say, yes, that's legal. Let's do it. That sounds cumbersome, and it could be. In some cases, they would watch high-value targets for days or even weeks to hit at the right time. But it could also happen within a matter of minutes.

There was another way that all of these procedures and safeguards could be sidestepped, and that was through the inherent right to self-defense. What that means is that in the rules - and this probably makes sense - if you are about to be killed because the enemy is bearing down on you or your allies are about to be killed, you can skip all of that oversight, all of those safeguard procedures and just press the red button and launch a missile.

And what Talon Anvil soon realized is the bureaucracy was getting in the way of what they wanted to do. Too often, the commander in charge of target authority would say no or wait, and they weren't getting to hit all the targets they wanted to. And so they started to call everything or the vast majority of the strikes they launched self-defense strikes, even if we in the public looking at it afterwards would say that doesn't seem like self-defense at all. And so they would use self-defense not only to hit ISIS on the front lines, but ISIS behind the front lines and people who may only be tenuously, you know, connected to supplying ISIS way behind the front lines. And pretty much anything they wanted to, they could find a way to justify a self-defense strike against.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He is a correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. He's been writing about civilian casualties and a lack of accountability for them in the air war against ISIS. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest today is Dave Philipps. He is a correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. He's reported recently on civilians who've been killed in drone strikes and bombings in the U.S. air war against ISIS, often with little accountability.

So there's this secret unit called Talon Anvil, which was operating - selecting targets, in theory with review from commanders elsewhere, but often, they could simply launch strikes on their own, claiming that it was necessary to defend American or allied forces. One of the things you write about is that there were some overall reviews of this air war against ISIS, and you spoke to a guy named Larry Lewis in - who was involved in a review of this. What did he find? Tell us who he was and what he found.

PHILIPPS: Larry Lewis is a civilian casualty expert who was hired by the Department of Defense to look at questions of civilian casualty rates in not just Syria and Iraq during the fight against ISIS, but in Afghanistan as well. And what he found, which really perplexed him, is that every year that Talon Anvil operated in Syria, the proportion of civilian casualties went up and up and up. And at the time, it was about 10 times as much as the civilian casualty rate with similar operations in Afghanistan. So for him, it wasn't just a case of, like, well, you know, war is hard. War is tragic. There's going to be casualties. He was seeing a rate that was much, much higher than he could really explain.

DAVIES: That was the review done in 2018. Is that right?

PHILIPPS: That's right.

DAVIES: Right. And did it lead to any action or any change in policy?

PHILIPPS: Well, here's the problem - is a lot of this stuff we don't know what the internal conversations were like because everything or nearly everything is classified. This war is very different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because we had a Tier 1 special operations force running things on the ground. That's the Army's Delta Force. And everything that they did was essentially made secret. So whatever debate there was happening on the ground or in backrooms about the civilian casualty rates we can't see. All we can see is that the rate didn't change. As Mr. Lewis found, it went up and up and up.

DAVIES: For this story, you did find people who would talk to you. You describe speaking to four officials who had direct contact with Talon Anvil. What did you hear from them about the reaction among others in the military, either from the operations command at Qatar or among the intelligence forces? What objections, if any, did they raise to what this secret strike force, Talon Anvil, was doing?

PHILIPPS: I think that there was a real range of opinions on Talon Anvil, as you can imagine. This was a really aggressive group of special operators, very elite, who were driving a really relentless air campaign that was working. I mean, surely, each week that they operated, they drove ISIS from more and more terrain until eventually, in 2019, their territory was annihilated. And so from some perspective, that was really good.

But what people who saw the close-up daily operations noticed - and this is people from all walks of the military - is that they seemed to take strikes that were careless to the point of recklessness or not strategically necessary but killed civilians in the process. And so, you know, as time went on, more and more people started to see them as cowboys, people who were taking strikes without giving full weight to the lives they were impacting.

DAVIES: It's a new thing in warfare to have people who can just inflict such death-dealing power from a video screen somewhere anyway. I mean, it's got to be - you wonder how it affects people. And I gather from your reporting that some sources felt that the background of some of those in this secret target selection unit, Talon Anvil, and the daily experience of operating - I guess they operated around-the-clock - in that environment affected their judgment. What did you hear?

PHILIPPS: Well, I - what people said is they were very motivated to defeat ISIS, and sometimes to a fault. You know, these are guys that, like you said, worked in three shifts around-the-clock in a small room looking at screens all day looking for the enemy. And what people said is they were very good Delta Force soldiers, people who are trained to do direct action against high-value targets and terrorists, essentially kick in doors and take down really important people. But they weren't very well trained to wage this kind of broader air war. And so all sorts of natural human impulses slipped in - confirmation bias, a lack of understanding about culture and language that made them see things as targets even when they weren't.

And it definitely started to impact the people around them because, remember, their decisions might affect a dozen other people who are involved in deploying a weapon, whether it's the air crew that is actually pushing the button to release the missile or the intelligence analysts that are in California or Washington, D.C., who then have to look at the high-definition footage afterwards and figure out what the battle damage is. And, you know, you can imagine that when that battle damage might include several dead civilians that that could be pretty traumatic. And so what we heard was, repeatedly, there was all sorts of pushback. There were pilots that refused to drop weapons because they thought it was unreasonably risky to civilians. There were intelligence analysts that got on the highly secure red phone and would argue with Talon Anvil from half a world away. There were all sorts of people that said, you know, no. Slow down. We don't need to take this hit. But ultimately, it was Talon Anvil that was in charge.

DAVIES: Give us an example of one of these strikes that went badly.

PHILIPPS: Sure. I'm going to take you to the height of the war against ISIS in March 2017. On that morning, ISIS was still holding a great deal of territory. And Talon Anvil was doing a number of strikes to prepare for the invasion of an area along the Euphrates River that was full of small farming villages. Essentially, they wanted to hit any target that they could so that a week later, when Syrian allied forces came in, they wouldn't face much resistance. So on that morning before dawn, they sent a couple of drones over to this area. And one of the drones was circling over a small farming village called Karama. At the time, they - not only Talon Anvil is watching this stuff, but so are the drone crews that are flying the aircraft and intelligence analysts watching from the United States.

And what they see in the high-definition camera is a town that's asleep, you know, dark, flat-roofed houses. No one's out. They have heat sensors that can see people really closely, even in the dark. And there's no movement. Talon Anvil lets everybody in the team know, hey, we want to find a lot of targets today because we want to use all of the bombs and missiles on the drone and go home empty. They have a special term for that in the military called going Winchester. So they tell everyone, hey, we want to go Winchester today. Find us some targets. But at that point, it's really quiet. They're flying around not seeing anything.

Talon Anvil lets the team know that there's a building of interest that they have some intelligence about, that is an ISIS command center. They focus in on this command center and see no movement. They have special sensors on the drone that can pick up enemy radios, enemy cellphones. They don't find any of that coming out of this. The impulse of the team is, hey, let's wait. Let's loiter here for a couple hours and see what we see. And then we can hit it when we're ready. But Talon Anvil doesn't want to wait. And they order the crew to drop a 500-pound bomb on this building. Well, it turns out that the building is a place that civilians are sheltering. And as the smoke clears, what the team sees in their high-definition video is women and children, you know, stumbling out of this place, many of them bleeding, some of them pulling out people who are dead.

This is shocking, of course, to the team. They count more than two dozen who are dead or seriously injured. And they immediately report it to the folks who are overseeing the air war for the U.S. military. Now, the U.S. military says that every single report of civilian deaths will be investigated and reported publicly. But this report, which comes from their own people, goes nowhere. It is never reported publicly. And, you know, in the official records, it never happened. And no one was ever killed. And what we're told by people that worked with Talon Anvil is this type of stuff happened over and over again and, oftentimes, never made it into the records.

DAVIES: OK. So you found out about it, but it's never been publicly acknowledged by the military?

PHILIPPS: Right. We talked to people who saw it firsthand, worked on that mission. And then when we went to the military central command, which oversees Syria, and gave them the date, the place, the team, they said, never happened.

DAVIES: You know, one thing that you said in that story really hit me. And I got to say that there would be times when they would decide they would want to, quote, "go Winchester" - that is to say, use all of the munitions they have in the air and have the aircraft and drones come home empty. This seems like kind of an appalling reversal of military strategy, right? Normally, you would want to decide what your objective is and bring the force necessary to accomplish the objective rather than decide you're going to empty everything you have that day.

PHILIPPS: Right. And I think that that shows the risk of letting Delta Force-enlisted operators be in charge of something like this. You know, these are folks that are selected because they're very biased towards action. They're very what the military likes to call kinetic. They like to break stuff. And they're extremely good at what they do. I mean, this is an elite posting that you don't reach unless you're heads and shoulders above your competitors. But they start to see things definitely in terms of - OK, what can we hit today? - which, you're right, like, inevitably, is going to lead to strikes that probably didn't need to be taken.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He is a correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. His latest book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." He'll be back to talk more about his reporting on civilian casualties in the U.S. air war against ISIS after this break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF KYLE EASTWOOD'S "SONG FOR YOU")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're speaking with New York Times military correspondent Dave Philipps. Along with his colleagues Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, he's reported recently on innocent civilians who have been killed in drone strikes and bombings in the U.S. air war against ISIS. The team reports that a small top-secret military unit called Talon Anvil was choosing targets in the campaign and often sidestepping rules to protect noncombatants. Philipps is also the author of the book "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs."

Tell us a little more about the members of Delta Force who were in Talon Anvil, this secret unit that was selecting targets. What - their rank, their experience?

PHILIPPS: Sure. So Delta Force is sort of the Army equivalent of Navy SEAL Team 6. They're the highest-level special operators who are really trained to do quick, dangerous, decisive raids on high-value targets. So these are, for example, the folks who tracked down and killed al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader. But in Talon Anvil, they were essentially assigned to a desk job. And you would get senior enlisted folks - you know, enlisted levels 7, 8, which is, like, a master sergeant type of level. So they were probably guys who had, you know, joined the Army around 2001, I would guess, or maybe a little before and had spent their whole careers in that environment. And they landed in these desk jobs where they were essentially using all sorts of intelligence - you know, tips from locals or cell phone intercepts and radio intercepts, things like that - to figure out, OK, so what should we hit, and how?

And in a way, because they had done many, many deployments, because they were somewhat familiar with fighting in Central Asia and the Middle East, they were a good fit for this. But in another way, they were maybe a liability because they are so focused towards action. They're so focused towards hitting. And they really viewed the other people in the teams - whether that's the intelligence analysts or people who would advise them on what are the right bombs to use so you don't cause too much damage - they viewed them, from what we've heard, as a real hindrance to getting the job done.

DAVIES: And members of Talon Anvil - did they - would they stay there for years, or would they rotate in and out?

PHILIPPS: No. That's the interesting thing about this that I found really alarming. They might sit in the chair for about three months and then rotate out, and they might come back a year or two later. So you're getting all sorts of new people in the chair who then have to figure out how to do the job again. And people I talked to said that you could tell sometimes that you had a new person because you'd get all sorts of bad strikes. People would essentially learn on the job about what was too aggressive, and, you know, it might take killing a number of people accidentally before you're reined in or removed or learn to do the job a little differently. But what we found is sometimes these bad strikes would come in clusters, and that might mean because a new team had just come in.

DAVIES: Wow. And I guess if you're essentially evaluating, you know, tips and intercepts to get information about this, experience would be really important. People who know that terrain who've done it before would have some sense of what's credible and what isn't.

PHILIPPS: Right. And also, I feel like a cultural understanding of the area is really important, and maybe they did not have that, you know? What the Kurdish allied forces are telling you may be reliable, or it may not be. And if you're a very experienced Delta Force operator who's done a bunch of combat deployments and lives in North Carolina but knows nothing about the Euphrates Valley and Syrian culture there, that can be a real liability.

DAVIES: In November, you wrote about a strike - an airstrike in March 2019 near a Syrian town called Baghuz. Tell us about the site of the attack. What was going on that day?

PHILIPPS: 2019 was the very end of the war against ISIS that had been going on for four years, essentially. And ISIS, which had once held a piece of territory in Iraq and Syria that was the size of Tennessee, had been bit by bit chased out of its caliphate until it was corralled in a tiny bend in the Euphrates River that was about a square mile. And there was tens of thousands of hardcore fighters and their families there, and they were going to make it their Alamo, their last stand, their fight to the death. And if you looked at this spot, one of the intelligence officers who was overseeing this described it to me as, like, Woodstock in hell. It was crammed with tents, tarps, mud, bullet-pocked vehicles parked every which way, hand-dug bunkers. And people were surrounded there by the U.S. and its allied forces for weeks. And at the very end of this, there was a series of airstrikes, one of which we found went really, really badly.

DAVIES: You mentioned that there was a drone with a high def - high-definition cameras flying above the scene, and its images were being viewed by commanders in the operations center in Qatar. What did they observe in this case?

PHILIPPS: Sure. So this is footage that is color, high definition, very clear, and the drone is flying over and watching this camp. And nothing in particular is going on, according to the people who are watching this video. There are some fighters carrying assault weapons, sort of winding their way through the camp, but they don't appear to be actively engaged in any fighting. And there's this large group of people that have sought refuge in this small depression down by the river, where they're protected by essentially a sand bank. And who is there is the types of people you might expect to seek shelter in a situation like this. It's women. It's children. It is the wounded. And what they're doing is essentially lying in rows, wrapped in blankets. There's no particular action.

And so the people in the command center are watching this, just waiting for essentially things to happen, when they see a American F-15 come into view in this video footage and drop a large bomb right in the middle of this crowd of noncombatants. And when the smoke clears, they see that almost everyone has been killed, probably about 50 or 70 people. And there are a few people that are straggling out and trying to get away, and then an F-15 comes in again and dropping really massive bombs - two 2,000-pound bombs - finishes off the survivors.

The people watching this are shocked. They don't understand why it happened. They don't know who did it. And it's only in scrambling to figure this out that they find out that it is the special operations force that we talked about that's been running this whole ground war. And they have called in these airstrikes believing that they were trying to target enemy combatants, or at least that's what they reported later. And so there's this huge scramble to figure out what happened and why did this happen and who made the call. And immediately, people in the command center start asking, OK, what are we going to do about this? - because this could be a war crime, and we need to report it.

DAVIES: By the way, do we know how many civilians were killed in this strike?

PHILIPPS: We know that about 80 people were killed. How many civilians were killed depends on how you count civilian according to the military, which is a really odd thing. So if I may, there was probably 16 people who were identified by the military as fighters. There were four people that were identified as civilian. And there were, you know, the vast majority of them - what? - that's about 60 that were left - who are in between, neither-nor. Now, under the rules, what a number of military lawyers have told me is unless you can positively identify somebody as enemy, they are civilian. But in, you know, the military's statements to us, they have a lot of people in this gray area, which has kept their civilian death toll to this strike very low at four people even though 80 were killed.

DAVIES: But I will note, though, that in your description of what this Air Force lawyer who was in the operations center and - did he actually see the video of the bombing?

PHILIPPS: Yes.

DAVIES: I forget whether he or somebody else said we just - well, what was the actual quote? There was no ambiguity about it.

PHILIPPS: Yeah, so there were some intelligence analysts who are trained to figure out what's on the screen that were watching this as it happened. And when the bombs hit, they immediately typed into their sort of group chat. One of them typed, we just killed 50 women and children, you know? And as I said, the number turned out to be higher, but that was the split-second reaction. They knew it was women and children that were there, and they watched them have a bomb dropped on them.

DAVIES: Now, if I understand - if I have this right, the U.S. military had never actually publicly acknowledged this strike until you presented them with your reporting, right?

PHILIPPS: So this strike never existed in any official records. And, again, we learned about it because people who witnessed it firsthand or at least saw the high-definition footage were deeply disturbed by what happened. But they didn't come to us first. And I think that that shows sort of the dysfunction that is in the accountability process in the military.

At first, these people went to their chain of command and said, hey. The regulations require that we investigate this because it could be a war crime. And their command did nothing. And so they went the next step up to the Air Force's Criminal Investigation Group, sort of their version of the FBI, which is called OSI. And they said, hey. This happened. It needs to be investigated. Can you take it? And they did nothing.

And so then these folks went to the Department of Defense's own watchdog, their inspector general, and said, hey. This happened. Nobody is investigating it. Someone needs to do something. Check it out. And there, they did find some traction. There was an investigator there named Gene Tate who immediately looked into it, decided, jeez, this is incredible; you know, this probably needs to be investigated by criminal authorities, not me. And so he, again, turned it - tried to turn it over to the right folks, and they did nothing. And so it was only years later, in 2021, that we heard about this from various people who'd seen it and who had tried through various channels inside to bring some accountability to it and had gotten nowhere.

DAVIES: Now, I want to go back to one part of this that's particularly striking to me. I mean, one of the people involved in this was an Air Force lawyer named Lieutenant Colonel Dean Korsak, who was very troubled by this. And he told people when he became aware of it, you should preserve all of the evidence. And he sought to get an investigation going. When he went to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, which looks into criminal matters, and sought an investigation, the response he got from a major there was pretty interesting. What did they tell him?

PHILIPPS: Yeah. And I should be clear that I never - when I tried to speak to Dean Korsak, he declined. So he's the person who really led this effort to turn people in or get some accountability but did not speak directly to us. But when he tried to talk to criminal investigators at the Air Force, he sent them an email saying, this strike happened. I think it needs to be looked into. Is that the job of the criminal investigators? They said, well, maybe. And I'm paraphrasing here. But they said, essentially, we only look into that stuff if there's a lot of public attention. And in this case, since no one knows about it, we won't look at it. And that's where it ended for them.

And I think that he was shocked about it and, you know, wouldn't let it rest and tried to take it to anyone within the military that he could think of that would actually do something. And when that failed, he took it to Congress. And ultimately, I don't think anyone ever acted on any of the stuff that he brought forward.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, we only look into it if there's a big public outcry or media attention is - I mean, it's consistent with the way a lot of large institutions deal with crises. Does anybody know about it? It's still, given the stakes here, pretty disturbing.

PHILIPPS: Well, and in addition, you know, it's really problematic when the military deceives the public about how effective its air war is. But I think that the real danger there is that sometimes the military will also start to believe it. And so you can have a war against ISIS where thousands and thousands of people die. But if the military believes its own story that, in fact, civilian casualties were extremely low, then in the future, that type of air war, you know, can be seen as a really enticing option, and leaders might not realize the cost. So there's a danger to everyone involved.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you here. We're going to take another break. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He is a correspondent for The New York Times covering the military. We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT ULERY'S "GAVE PROOF")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a military correspondent for The New York Times. Recently, he and his colleagues Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti have been reporting on innocent civilians who've been killed in drone strikes and bombings in the U.S. air war against ISIS.

What's the military's procedure for investigating a suspected case of civilian casualties? How's it supposed to work?

PHILIPPS: That's a great question. So in any allegation, whether it's a Twitter post or something that comes from within the military, the military's stance is, we check everything out. We're going to check it out. We're going to decide if it's credible. And we are going to report everything publicly so that, you know, the American people can know.

In practice, it's surprisingly ineffective. So in war zones where ISIS is on the ground but the United States military is not, there's not really an opportunity to go investigate sites and see how many people are killed. And so in practice, what they did instead was look at the footage from drones or other aircraft to see, after the bomb dropped, you know, who could you count? You know, that seems straightforward, but if a 500-pound bomb hits a building and collapses it, you may never know who's inside. And the military would only count the number of people they could actually definitively see. What we heard over and over from people we talked to is that they felt that the true casualty numbers had been drastically undercounted.

And in addition, the people that they put in charge of this process were people that had no special training to do it - oftentimes had no language or cultural training, and so they weren't able to really look at local news sources on the ground - and, in some cases, did not have the security clearance needed to view the materials that they might use, like drone footage or other things, to actually assess this stuff. And so, you know, what you got was very incomplete. And yet, the military treated it as definitive evidence.

You know, so they kept a count of the number of civilians they killed, which, by the way, is about 1,300 during the four years of the war. And they were very confident that those numbers were real and that outside organizations like Human Rights Watch that were reporting numbers that were many times higher were being unreasonable. But once we looked under the hood at how it worked, we found that, you know, time and time again, their accounts were just seriously flawed. And I should say that The New York Times worked with journalist Azmat Khan, who went to dozens and dozens of these sites on the ground and talked to people who were there and compared what they said to what the military's own records said and found repeatedly that there was a gulf between them.

DAVIES: Right. I want to mention that to listeners - that the Civilian Casualty Files that Azmat Khan and her team developed are available on the Times' website. It's a very extensive catalog of these 1,300 civilian casualty assessments, which they managed to get through a Freedom of Information Act request, followed by a lawsuit. And it's really interesting reading. And what I would - it's fair to say that what they observe of the - in terms of the accuracy and thoroughness of these reports is very consistent with what you've discovered in the cases you've looked at, isn't it?

PHILIPPS: Yeah. I mean, it is hard and courageous reporting that Azmat Khan did and put herself at some risk to try and get clear answers to this. But, you know, time and again, she would come with a piece of paper in her hand that she got through a lawsuit that said, you know, this building was struck and, you know, maybe one person was killed. And she would go there and find out from talking to neighbors and survivors that, in fact, a whole family was killed, but because of the counting method I described, that that was invisible to military leaders.

DAVIES: Right. Were these casualty assessments, in many cases, done by the very units that had authorized the airstrikes?

PHILIPPS: That's right. And so you can imagine if Talon Anvil bombed a school that they thought was being used to store ISIS ammunition but, in fact, it was being used by refugees as a place to shelter, they were the ones who would do the count and explain what happened. And you can imagine it's human nature that they are going to downplay any mistakes or any shortcuts in the procedure. And probably, they'll count down the body count as well.

DAVIES: Yeah. Well, it's fair to say if what happened could be regarded as a war crime and you might be accused of it and you're in charge of investigating it, it's hard to imagine that you'd play it straight.

PHILIPPS: Yeah, yeah. And that's what people said happened time and again.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation about his reporting on civilian casualties in the U.S. air war against ISIS after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Dave Philipps. He's a military correspondent for The New York Times. Along with his colleagues Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, he's been reporting on civilians killed in drone strikes and bombings in the U.S. air war against ISIS.

I want to go back to something I thought I heard you say earlier. Did you say that the military believes that there were 1,300 civilians killed in this air war over - what? - the five or six years that it occurred?

PHILIPPS: Sorry. I should correct that, 1,400 civilians. I'm looking at my notes right now.

DAVIES: That sounds like quite a significant number of civilian deaths. What do others, nongovernmental organizations estimate this figure to be?

PHILIPPS: Human Rights Watch, which has done a pretty thorough job of trying to make their own count, says there's about 7,000. You know, I should say that, like, look; fighting ISIS is not easy. This is a force that purposefully placed itself amongst civilians and tried to use the United States' own rules of engagement against it. And so I've talked to people who, you know, argued, hey, look; yes, Talon Anvil was extremely aggressive with its strikes. But it did that to try and drive this really brutal occupying force out of Syria. And it did that in four years. If it had been conservative and taken instead eight years but protected more civilians, would the outcome have just been even more people harmed by a longer occupation by ISIS? So I'm not saying that this is easy stuff. What I'm saying is that we can only really assess it and decide how to better use these tools if we're honest and clear about what the real cost was and how things really operated. And, you know, for years, this has been hidden behind a cloak of, you know, classification and secrecy. And that conversation has not happened.

DAVIES: Since you've reported this, are there plans for congressional investigations or public hearings?

PHILIPPS: Well, there's plans for a military investigation. They assigned a four-star general to look into this strike. And he may be looking at some of the broader issues that we brought up, too. So far, there is not any publicly announced congressional investigation. I certainly know that people we talked to have contacted Congress and said, you know, please, you know, put me under oath. Ask me to talk about this because I have a lot to say.

DAVIES: You had a story where Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed these issues. What did he have to say about it?

PHILIPPS: I think that this caught him a little bit by surprise. I think, because of the reporting process we talked about that, step by step, sort of downplayed everything that happened, it was very easy to be at the top of the military and think that there wasn't a problem. And in addition, the military has a really short memory, you know? Five years ago is ancient history. And so when we're talking about things that happened in 2017 in Syria, I think a lot of military leaders right now, understandably, are more focused on what's going on with China and Russia. So my understanding is they want to - they've said they want to get to the bottom it. They've made the move to try and look at this. To what extent they will really do something that overhauls the process, that keeps this type of thing from happening again the next time - because almost certainly, there will be a next time when we choose to use drone warfare in a big way - I think that's an open question.

DAVIES: Well, Dave Philipps, thanks so much for speaking with us again.

PHILIPPS: My pleasure. Thank you.

DAVIES: Dave Philipps is a correspondent covering the military for The New York Times. His latest book is "Alpha: Eddie Gallagher And The War For The Soul Of The Navy SEALs." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed - like Nicole Kidman, who stars as Lucille Ball in the new film "Being The Ricardos," or actor Kal Penn, who has a new memoir - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "ISN'T THIS MY SOUND AROUND ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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