With the New York Times, I have filed a new lawsuit against the United States Central Command seeking public disclosure of surveillance footage related to the tragically botched Aug. 29 drone strike in Kabul. Specifically, the lawsuit — filed under the Freedom of Information Act — seeks aerial footage starting five minutes before the drone started tracking the white car and ending five minutes after the attack.
This strike is a promising subject for a FOIA case because it has attracted an unusual amount of public interest and the government has already declassified an unusual volume of information about it. Thank you to the NYT newsroom’s lawyer, David McCraw, and our new annual First Amendment Fellow, Jess Hui, for representing me in this litigation.
The military carried out the strike amid its massive and chaotic evacuation operation at the Kabul airport as the Taliban swept into control of Afghanistan. Three days earlier, a suicide bomber claimed by ISIS-K had blown himself up within the desperate crowd, killing at least 182 people, including 169 Afghan civilians and 13 American service members. The previous day, the Pentagon had announced a drone strike that it said killed ISIS-K’s planners, but everyone was bracing for more carnage. That Sunday morning, the military announced a second drone strike that it said had killed additional would-be ISIS-K suicide bombers headed to the airport. But soon, chatter began to arise that a civilian family, including children, had been killed in that second drone strike.
While acknowledging there had been collateral damage, the Pentagon initially maintained the strike had been “righteous” while putting out more information: there had been intelligence that attackers would be using a white Toyota and the one it had been following had gone to a suspected ISIS-K safehouse and then engaged in suspicious behavior. It also said there had been a secondary explosion that was consistent with bombs being in the car. But as my colleagues at The Times later showed in an excellent reconstruction using all kinds of video footage from Afghanistan — a rare opportunity since drone strikes seldom occur in urban settings where there are cameras all over the place — the driver of the targeted car was an innocent aid worker whose apparently suspicious behavior had been ferrying around water containers, not bombs. The Pentagon eventually acknowledged that it had made a tragic mistake: no ISIS-K fighters had been killed, and it now said a propane tank was most likely the cause of a secondary explosion.
I want to take this opportunity to respond as well to some controversy over a Twitter posting I made right after the AP moved a story about the initial announcement. When the Pentagon said that it had managed to kill ISIS-K bombers bound for the airport, I had found it weird: how to account for a world in which, in just a few days, the American military had gone from being blind to an ISIS-K suicide operative walking up to the airport gates, to apparently being able to figure out both where the plotters were and even in which car the next wave of would-be attackers were coming? I had a thought that I considered cynical: had the Taliban – at war as well with ISIS-K, a conflict that would continue after the Americans left – begun sharing intelligence about the shared enemy from its own spies, a possibility the government would doubtless try to conceal as awkward and humiliating? I typed the following into a Twitter post as a comment on the AP headline: “The US clearly has a remarkable intelligence line of sight into ISIS-K right now.” Some people immediately picked up on the insinuation lurking behind my statement. An Arizona-based criminal defense lawyer wrote: “Yes. My question is, is that assisted by the Taliban, or purely US capability?” I replied: “Based on nothing, I harbor the same theory.” A former F.B.I. counterterrorism agent also responded to my original tweet with the same thought: “And maybe some really good partners, or enemies providing insight,” and a few other Twitter users whom I did not know responded to that posting with comments like “the enemy of my enemy” and “Going to be really awkward once people realize that targeting data is coming from the Taliban.”
In retrospect, obviously, the premise of this whole line of thought was off: there had been no sudden dramatic improvement in intelligence.
After the reports of civilian casualties began to emerge, some internet trolls like Glenn Greenwald had fun denouncing my initial tweet for uncritically taking the Pentagon’s claim at face value. This leveraged hindsight understanding and omitted the context of the above discussion, but that said, it’s a best practice to wait a few days to see what reports emerge from the ground before attempting to assess a drone strike — a lesson I know well from years of drone policy coverage and yet overlooked in this instance. To borrow a phrase my opinion-side colleague Ross Douthat used in a column about his thoughts watching the “shambolic” exit from Afghanistan, those of us who speculated that there might be an uncomfortable origin to the the apparent improvement in intelligence thought we were being cynics — but we actually weren’t cynical enough.