Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake

It's Friday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup. 

The Pentagon on Friday confirmed it mistook a civilian vehicle for an ISIS-K threat when it launched a drone strike on Aug. 29 in Kabul that killed 10 civilians.

We'll break down how the intelligence failed, how Defense leaders have responded and what steps are being taken to make sure such a deadly mistake doesn't happen again.

For The Hill, we're Ellen Mitchell and Rebecca Kheel. Write to us with tips: emitchell@thehill.com and rkheel@thehill.com

Let's get to it.

Pentagon admits 'tragic mistake'

The Pentagon on Friday confirmed it mistook a civilian vehicle for an ISIS-K threat when it launched a drone strike on Aug. 29 in Kabul that killed 10 civilians.

"I am now convinced that as many as 10 civilians, including up to seven children, were tragically killed in that strike," U.S. Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters at the Pentagon. "Moreover, we analyzed that it is unlikely that the vehicle and those who died were associated with ISIS-K or were a direct threat to U.S. forces."

"Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake," he said.

Apologies given: McKenzie also offered his "profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed."

"This strike was taken in the earnest belief that it would prevent an imminent threat to our forces and the evacuees at the airport, but it was a mistake and I offer my sincere apology. As the combatant commander, I am fully responsible for the strike and this tragic outcome," he said.

The previous explanation: Pentagon officials had previously asserted that at least one ISIS-K member and three civilians were killed when the U.S. military struck a vehicle it said was "an imminent ISIS-K threat" to U.S. forces evacuating people at Kabul's airport.

Shortly thereafter, reports emerged that the U.S. military targeted the driver of the vehicle, Zemari Ahmadi, based on dubious claims, including because they believed he may have had ties to ISIS and that explosives had been put in his vehicle.

But the driver did not have ties to the terrorist organization and instead was a worker at an aid group, Nutrition and Education International, the investigation found.

What went wrong?: In trying to explain the mistake, McKenzie said that in the 36 hours leading up to the strike the U.S. military had at least 60 different intelligence reports - some "corroborating and some conflicting" - about a threat to U.S. forces at Kabul's airport.

"One of the most recurring aspects of the intelligence was that ISIS-K would utilize a white Toyota Corolla as a key element in the next attack," he said. 

"We didn't take the strike because we thought we were wrong, we took the strike because we thought we thought we had a good target," McKenzie said. 

Will anyone be fired?: McKnezie would not say if anyone would be held responsible, as the Pentagon is in the process of investigating that possibility.



Following McKenzie's comments, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered his own condolences.

Austin, who said McKenzie briefed him on the investigation's findings earlier Friday, said the Defense Department now knows "there was no connection between Mr. Ahmadi and ISIS-Khorasan, that his activities on that day were completely harmless and not at all related to the imminent threat we believed we faced, and that Mr. Ahmadi was just as innocent a victim as were the others tragically killed."

Other assurances: Secretary of State Antony Blinken also on Thursday sought to assure France, saying it was a vital partner, according to remarks made after he spoke with Australian foreign and defense ministers in Washington, Reuters reported.

Actions demanded: After the Pentagon's public apology, human rights groups released their own statements condemning the mistake.

 The American Civil Liberties Union said the strike "should be an inflection point and wake-up call at long last" to the consequences of carrying out attacks that harm civilians.

"If President Biden truly means to center human rights, he needs to end the lethal force-first approach of the last 20 years, and also end this country's program of lethal strikes even outside recognized battlefields," the ACLU said in a statement. "For too long, U.S. presidents have flouted the rights-protecting safeguards of international law and our system of checks and balances, with devastating consequences for human lives." 

And Amnesty International said that while the Pentagon's statements are an "important step toward accountability" more steps need to be taken. 

Read the full story here.


Milley: Calls to China were 'perfectly within the duties' of job 

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, told The Associated Press that his calls to China following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot were "routine" and "perfectly within the duties and responsibilities" of his role.

The top military official told the news outlet while traveling to Europe that he has regularly made similar calls "to reassure both allies and adversaries in this case in order to ensure strategic stability."

First public comments: The comments mark the first time Milley has publicly commented on the matter since excerpts from a forthcoming book by veteran journalist Bob Woodward and The Washington Post's Robert Costa revealed that Milley twice called his Chinese counterpart in the wake of the Jan. 6 mob attack on the Capitol to assure him that former President Trump did not plan to attack Beijing as an attempt to stay in office.

The controversy: According to an excerpt from the book, Milley said in one of the calls, "You and I have known each other for now five years. If we're going to attack, I'm going to call you ahead of time. It's not going to be a surprise." 

The book, "Peril," which is scheduled to be released Tuesday, also alleged that Milley sought to limit Trump's ability to launch a military strike or nuclear weapons following the Capitol riot and held secret meetings at the Pentagon on the issue. 

Will address this further: After brief comments, Milley told the AP he plans to address the matter further when he testifies before Congress later in September.

"I think it's best that I reserve my comments on the record until I do that in front of the lawmakers who have the lawful responsibility to oversee the U.S. military," Milley told the outlet. "I'll go into any level of detail Congress wants to go into in a couple of weeks."

France pulls ambassador in protest of US-Australian sub deal

France on Friday recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia in protest of a new partnership between the two countries to deliver Australia nuclear-powered submarines.

Who made the call?: French Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement Friday afternoon that the decision was made by French President Emmanuel Macron.

"This exceptional decision is justified by the exceptional gravity of the announcements made on 15th September by Australia and the United States," the foreign minister said.

'Unacceptable behavior': "The cancellation of the Attack class submarine program binding Australia and France since 2016, and the announcement of a new partnership with the United States meant to launch studies on a possible future cooperation on nuclear-powered submarines, constitute unacceptable behavior between allies and partners, whose consequences directly affect the vision we have of our alliances, of our partnerships and of the importance of the Indo-Pacific for Europe," he added.

What sparked it: France has reacted angrily to the new partnership between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, including by canceling a gala planned in Washington, D.C. The foreign minister earlier this week compared President Biden to former President Trump over the agreement, recalling the unilateral decisions of the prior administration.

France had been seeking a multibillion dollar defense agreement with Australia, and the new partnership, called AUKUS, means that Paris will miss out on the lucrative opportunity.


100 National Guard to help Capitol Police for Saturday rally

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday approved 100 National Guard troops to aid Capitol Police for Saturday's Washington, D.C., rally in defense of those arrested in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot.

The Guardsmen, who will come from the D.C. National Guard, "will be stationed at the D.C. Armory as a Physical Security Task Force to augment law enforcement for the September 18th demonstration on Capitol Hill," Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell said in a statement.

What they're needed for: The troops join a number of local law enforcement agencies supporting the Capitol Police in preparation for the "Justice for J6" rally, where demonstrators will be backing people who invaded the Capitol in a failed attempt to overturn President Biden's election victory.

Other measures: Officers from the Metropolitan Police Department will have an increased presence around the city, with numerous street closures set to go into effect, a move intended to prevent similar events from occurring.

Seven-foot fencing that was erected around the Capitol grounds the day after Jan. 6 was reinstalled Wednesday night in preparation for this weekend.

What they'll be doing: The Pentagon statement notes that should the Capitol Police require assistance, they will first utilize local, state, and federal law enforcement capabilities before requesting the Guard troops. 

"The task force will only be deployed upon request of the Capitol Police to help protect the U.S. Capitol Building and Congressional Office buildings by manning building entry points and verifying credentials of individuals seeking access to the building," Mitchell said.

Read the rest here.



A House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a briefing on "Biological Security Threats" at 5p.m.



That's it for today. Check out The Hill's defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. We'll see you Monday.