PRESS SECRETARY JOHN F. KIRBY: OK, good afternoon, everybody. I am going to kick off today's briefing by inviting Lieutenant General Sami Said, the U.S. Air Force Inspector General, to come up and speak to you about his findings and recommendations with respect to the August 29th airstrike near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan.
As you know, the General was tasked by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall to conduct a review and an investigation of that strike. He has completed that work, he has briefed it out to senior leaders here at the Pentagon, to include the Secretary, and now he's prepared to talk to you about his findings and what some of his recommendations were going forward.
He will take questions after that. I will, as before, be up here to moderate them, so I will call on you and we'll try to get to as many people as we can in the time that we have.
So with that, General Said?
LIEUTENANT GENERAL SAMI D. SAID: So folks, good afternoon, appreciate your time. So this investigation was directed by the Secretary of Defense, who asked the Secretary of the Air Force to designate a three star to conduct it. I was chosen to do it. That came at the direction of the Secretary of Defense, and ultimately, it went back to the Secretary of Defense.
The whole point of it, in selecting me, is to make sure it's independent -- I'm nowhere close to this strike, I'm the Department of the Air Force Inspector General -- so that we conduct a thorough and independent investigation of what happened and why it happened.
We did not rely on any previous investigations or analysis that had been done up to that point. We rebuilt what happened from the ground up. That's critically important because for us to make conclusions and recommendations, we'd have to be confident in the underlying data. So we reconstructed everything from the ground up. We did review what was done before but we certainly didn't rely on it, and that included pulling all the imagery, all the intel streams, interviewing 29 individuals, 22 directly involved with this strike, and under oath.
The report of investigation is classified and I know you're probably not happy about that but let me tell you it has to be because the sources and methods and tactics, techniques and procedures used in executing such strikes are classified. And for me to figure out what happened with any level of confidence, I have to deal with this classified material.
So overall, the report is classified. I'm going to do my best to give you the data that you need and the insights that you need and I'll be transparent as I can, mindful of the fact that we're in an unclassified setting here.
If you had the report in front of you, the front end of it, at least a page, is about the context at the time and it's important to preface what I'm about to say in terms of conclusions with that because you have to put yourself into the conditions that existed at the time.
And what I mean by that is the risk to force at HKIA and the multiple threat streams that they were receiving of an imminent attack, mindful that, three days prior, such an attack took place, where we lost 13 soldiers -- or lost 13 members and a lot of Afghan civilians.
We are one day from the exfil, so the ability for defense had declined. We're concentrated in one location, with a lot of threat streams indicating imminent attacks that looked similar to the attack that happened three days prior. So you can imagine the stress on the force is high and the risk to force is high, and not appreciating what I'm about to say through that lens I think would be inappropriate.
The other thing I want to say up front is this strike was unique. So as I'm talking you through it, if you try to equate it or correlate it to strikes you're familiar with -- classic, over the horizon CT strikes -- you would be comparing apples to oranges. So please don't do that.
It was unique in the sense that it was a self defense strike, executed in self defense, unlike what you're accustomed to, which is by far the norm, where you have a long time to do things like pattern of life. You have days to assess the intelligence and determine how you're going to execute the strike. It's a very different construct and very different execution. So I wouldn't conclude anything from this particular strike, which was very unique, to the norm that is exercised with over the horizon CT strikes.
I mentioned the fact that the report is classified, so bear with me on that. So let me give you some highlights and then we'll get to Q&A quickly so I can see what's on your mind.
One is I don't think you'll be surprised that, as the department has already acknowledged, the report confirmed that the strike resulted in the death of 10 Afghan civilians, including three men and seven children.
Individuals involved in this strike, interviewed during this investigation, truly believed at the time that they were targeting an imminent threat to U.S. forces on HKIA. The intended target of the strike, the vehicle, the white Corolla, its contents and occupant were genuinely assessed at the time to be a threat to U.S. forces.
That assessment was primarily driven by interpretation of intelligence and correlating that to observe movement throughout an eight hour window in which the vehicle was tracked throughout the day before it was ultimately struck.
Regrettably, the interpretation or the correlation of the intelligence to what was being perceived at the time, in real time, was inaccurate. In fact, the vehicle, its occupant and contents did not pose any risk to U.S. forces.
In addition, the assessment, prior to the strike at the compound at which the vehicle was struck, of the individuals in the area itself was inaccurate and you're probably going "duh, we know that," given the results but it's inaccurate in the sense that when you do the analysis, you can see that there were opportunities to potentially conduct the assessment more carefully, given time. So therefore, it was inaccurate, given what was known at the time.
The authorities and rules of engagement utilized to execute this regrettable strike were understandable, and they were understandable based on the information available at the time and the perceived very high threat to U.S. forces at HKIA.
The investigation found no violation of law, including the law of war. It did find execution errors, confirmed by confirmation -- or combined with confirmation bias and communication breakdowns that regrettably led to civilian casualties.
The investigation makes three recommendations. They were broad enough but important enough, based on the analysis of the investigation, of what didn't go as well as it could have. And the recommendations are unique to this type of strike, which again is very time constrained. It's not what you're used to in the over the horizon CT strike, where you have time to soak a target, do pattern of life. This is a self defense strike because the vehicle was getting closer and closer to HKIA and got within three kilometers and was perceived to contain explosives, and thus, an imminent threat to U.S. forces on HKIA.
But the recommendations are focused on this type of strike, where the time is constrained, the scenario is dynamic and it's in an urban terrain. And let me just give you the highlights of them.
The first one, we can talk in detail what they mean if you want. But the first one is implementing procedures in a strike cell where if we find ourself in a similar situation where we're time-constrained conducting strikes very quickly because of the need to exercise self-defense in urban terrain and we're trying to interpret or correlate intelligence to what we're seeing in a rapid fashion, implementing procedures to mitigate the risk of confirmation bias, which we can talk more about that as to why it's of interest in this particular case.
The second recommendation is enhancing situational awareness by sharing information that is very thoroughly-shared within the confines of the strike cell and within a bubble within that strike cell. But sharing that situational awareness analysis more broadly across the strike cell, but also outside to elements supporting this strike cell from elsewhere. That additional information will enhance overall situational awareness and will provide better insight and better cross-check of, what exactly are we looking at? What are we seeing? What else could it be? Are we interpreting the intelligence in an appropriate way or not? So that sharing of information can be approved, and should be.
And the last, I mentioned that the assessment of the presence of civilians, specifically children in the compound was inaccurate. So recommended a review of how that assessment is conducted, again, under rapid strikes, where you're exercising something in a time-constrained fashion for a more deliberate, lengthy day's time-type strikes which you're accustomed to. I think that's pretty tight because you have the luxury of time. You don't have the luxury of time when you're perceiving something to be an imminent threat that's approaching you, and you need to have lockdown procedures of how we might be able to improve that to pick up on what's there.
We shared, at the direction of the secretary of defense, who owns this report -- this report was shared with the operational commanders so they can assess the recommendations within and decide what else they might want to do to implement corrective measures. It was also shared, again, by the direction of the secretary of defense, with the chain of command so they can assess the analysis within and determine if, as appropriate, if any accountability is appropriate, and they can see in excruciating detail exactly what played out and how it played out, and if performance-wise it didn't meet their bar. That's commander business, and that's why we refer such investigations to the chain of command. They've only had it for two days, right? So it's not like they've had it for a while. They've had it for two days, and they're digesting it to try to work through that.
I do need to mention something, because we're also asked to look at the initial investigation and -- and the messaging that followed, and I'm talking specifically to the 15-6 and what we initially messaged versus what we eventually evolved to, and then what I'm telling you right now, and what caused that. And so you can imagine, given the severity and the significance of the strike, there was a high desire to get information as soon as possible not only to the chain of command, but up to the D.C. AOR, the Pentagon, to you all, to the public, to the Hill.
So the investigation was conducted but the investigation was conducted very quickly, again, with pristine intent, to provide information as quickly as possible. But the timeframe it was conducted was insufficient to drill down sufficiently, to provide sufficient insight and reach conclusions that are really sound and based on facts. So I didn't find any indication at all of anybody slow-leaking information or twisting information. It was merely investigation done. It was appropriate and justified for everyone to assume that investigation contained accurate information, and we all thought that, right? But when you look back at it as to what else could have been done, I'm just telling you, I don't think anybody could have done a better job in four to five days. It's just not possible, right? It takes more time to do such work, as it's very complicated, and I just want to put that out to make sure that you all understand why the messaging was different at first.
And I'll leave you with this, and then we'll go to Q&A. Look, we had the benefit of time to conduct this review. I used the same data that folks conducting the strike on the day the strike had. That's the only fair thing to do, right? We can't second-guess with additional information that they didn't have, although I did look at that to see if there was something they should have had that they didn't have. There's not much of that that would have made a difference.
But I had the luxury of time to review that data over weeks. They didn't, right? They had the same data, but they had to assimilate it, digest it and make a decision in a matter of hours. So I have to acknowledge that, that yes, when I had weeks to figure it out and do analysis and reach conclusions, I've highlighted the breakdowns for you, but they seem simpler now than they were at the time, given the time constraints.
So let me stop at that because I don't want to keep babbling for too long, and maybe take some your questions.
MR. KIRBY: Lita?
Q: Hi, General. Can you say whether any of the evaluation you found made this avoidable if any of those changes had been made? Would this have been avoidable? And you're saying you found no illegalities. Why no discipline was -- why did you find that there was no one needing discipline, when it was such a major failure?
GEN. SAID: Yeah, no, great questions. Let me hit the second one first, because I'm sure that's on everybody's mind. Let me just be upfront. I didn't eliminate the possibility of accountability. That is commander business. What I concluded at our level in this investigation -- I didn't find violations of law or of the law of war. I didn't find, when I was doing the process review -- remember, this is about this strike and the process. Had I found an individual that failed to perform to the level of, you know, criminal misconduct or criminal negligence, and that was the cause of failure for this whole thing, we would have spun that off into separate investigation into an individual. So , we were eyes-wide-open to go, did any individual rise to that level, that we're going to spin off an investigation, a criminal investigation or a misconduct investigation? And what I found is the disconnects were an aggregate process breakdown in which many people are involved, and it wasn't any particular individual that was causal to that, and certainly, nothing rose to the level of criminal conduct.
Break-break. The fact that I've sent this to the chain of command, that's where it belongs. It doesn't mean the chain of command will read it and say, "I'm not doing anything." They could read it and go, "This is subpar performance." It's not an objective assessment. There isn't a checklist to go, "If you do this, it's OK; If you do that, it's not OK." But they can go, "This is subpar performance," and decide to take adverse action. They can de-credential folks. They can retrain folks. They can fire folks. They can do a variety of different things.
So you should not perceive the fact that I didn't call any individual out with accountability. That just does not mean that the chain of command won't.
And to your second point, I can't play hypotheticals and say, "If we implement the recommendations, we're guaranteed this will never happen again." Here's what I will tell you: Based on the circumstances in this particular, which is a very unique strike under self-defense, and I told you the constraints of that, these measures will go a long way to greatly mitigate the risk of this happening again because they all contributed to the ultimate strike, right.
So these measures will allow us to kind of mitigate the risk of confirmation bias, the situational awareness, will enhance the collective in time to question what is it that we're looking at and what are we interpreting and will also help us in the analysis of individuals at the -- at the strike area.
When you're conducting a rapid strike, not the strikes you're used to over the horizon CT.
Q: Two questions. Where did the process break down?
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: And in the original explanation of what went wrong, it all tracked back to that role of being seen at a location that was associated with ISIS, and everything after that seemed to be confirmation bias. So was that original determination that that car which actually was at that guys place of work, that that was in an ISIS location, was that the original fall from which everything else fallen?
GEN. SAID: Yes, sir, but with -- with some nuance, just let me walk you through that because this is a critical point. So the question for everybody is how did this particular vehicle become the vehicle of interest that we ultimately struck?
And it's what I alluded to before, it's -- it boiled down to the interpretation of intelligence available and trying to correlate it to what you're seeing in real time and trying to determine is the intelligence getting enough information to conclude that this area or this particular compound and associated vehicles are the compounding vehicles of interest, right.
There's an art to that. It's not pristine. It's not always totally accurate. There's interpretation involved. But to your point, that is how it started. There was intelligence available to say that -- that correlated the Corolla to -- to particular locations, and the way it was interpreted is this was the Corolla of interest.
Now, obviously incorrectly, in hindsight, but it didn't stop there. When I'm talking about confirmation bias, the initial correlation I think if you all saw it in a classified setting, would be reasonable to conclude that that should be a vehicle of interest, right. And -- and I think that would be very, very reasonable given the information that you're having that you're receiving and you're trying to assess.
But what transpired over eight hours, cumulative right, is the observed pattern of movement, the observed behavior and activity, that all has to aggravate and connect with intelligence to see is it reaffirming that this is truly the vehicle of interest to reach a point where you're so confident that you're going to strike it.
One of the recommendations that goes to this issue, central to this issue, is red-teaming, if you will, to break confirmation bias by somebody going you can interpret the intelligence in a way that leads you to further believe that this is the vehicle of interest, but you can also interpret it as benign.
So somebody pushing back to break the confirmation bias in a red-team function, if you well, a dedicated threat team function, going hey, it could be this, but it could also be that, why do we think it's this? Because human nature, we all seen it, right, everybody knows what confirmation bias is, when you're consciously or subconsciously start to perceive something and you go that is a suspicious person, every activity they take thereafter and you start seeing it through that lens.
And what to me, not knowing that you might be a suspicious person, appears totally benign to you where you have this pre -- preconceived notion based on information that you have you might be suspicious, you start reading that activity as, yes that is affirming of suspicious behavior. That actually happened during the eight hour window.
There were instances where the intelligence was being correlated to real-time information or what was being observed in a way that we could have had a chance to inject and go what else could this be? I know you could interpret it this way, but what about this?
So to your point, though, that is accurate. There was intelligence that led us to believe that was the Corolla of interest. But as we all know, and as I said, it's not.
Q: So when you say there was a breakdown of process, is that because there was nobody to push back?
GEN. SAID: So it's a combination of things, right. So I made three recommendations for a reason. It's not just one thing. This is how the ball started rolling, if you will, of what made it a -- a vehicle of interest and over time made it a high enough interest vehicle that the threshold to strike, It was met.
But I also said information sharing laterally, not only within the strike cell but outside to supporting elements, could've produced situational awareness that would've helped the strike cell in avoiding this civ (casualty). And last but not least, and this is critically important, obviously the clearing and determining who is in the strike area in the compound where we struck it also needs to be reviewed.
So it's not a one thing, but if you were saying causal factor that's what started the ball rolling, for sure.
Q: What could they have learned if they went outside the strike zone?
GEN. SAID: So, again I need to be careful of what I share on classification but let me just give you as much as I can, where that would've come in helpful is the awareness of the imminence of the likelihood of imminence of the strike would have allowed folks to provide additional context and information that might have been helpful to maybe delay the strike for a few minutes to do additional clearing of the target area, but the information sharing laterally and certainly outside the strike cell was not optimal. It could definitely be improved.
Again, I'm sorry I'm being slightly vague, or quite a bit vague, it's just to avoid the classification. This would be much, much easier in a classified setting.
Q: Just want to follow-up a little bit about what you just said. Are you saying that if they step outside the bubble and console to people, they may have learned that a strike on troops was not as imminent as they thought it was?
GEN SAID: No, no that's not what I'm saying. I said there was no way to step outside the bubble and ask somebody and somebody will say it's not. It's -- imagine yourself sitting in the strike cell. By the way, I have to say this, we're fixated on one threat. You have to realize that strike cell was dealing with multiple stretch streams tracking multiple vehicles at any given time, right, this is not the only thing they are tracking.
But what they're trying to do is as intelligence is coming in, they're trying to correlate what the intelligence is telling them to what they're seeing in their own eyes with the assets that are tracking. And they're trying to correlate is that intelligence connecting to what we're seeing sufficiently so to conclude that is the vehicle of interest that's going to be involved in the attack on the 29th?
If you had somebody sitting in the strike cell as the issue of confirmation bias saying look, you're correlating this piece of info to reaffirm that that is the vehicle but what you're reaffirming in the activity you're seeing could be nefarious, if you will, but it could also be very benign. This is what it could be.
Why are we not choosing to interpret -- so pushing back a little bit, playing that dialogue to go what is it exactly that we're looking at to make sure because it's hard when you're the one executing the strike to be in the second-guessing mode at the same time when you're responsible for so many assets and targets that you're tracking.
And it's only a factor -- well I say only -- it's a particularly a factor in this unique scenario, right, in the over-the-horizon CT strikes when you have so much time and it's deliberate and you're doing it over hours and days and you're soaking targets. It's less of an issues because there's a lot of time to have discussions and second guess and red team around it.
When you're doing a strike so rapidly you need that, I think, I'm convinced you need that pushback to be sure that you're interpreting something -- you're not interpreting something through your very biased lens, which is human nature by the way. I've put m myself in the same scenario.
If I started to perceive that car as a risk to U.S. forces I will start to read what it's doing and its occupants throughout the day through that lens, and subconsciously I'm starting to think that's a threat. Somebody stepping back on it, that could be totally benign, would challenge me for me to go in, OK, let's slow down a bit. Why is it relevant to that level. Does that make sense? Very different.
Q: In a situation like this where things are moving quickly and there is an imminent threat, how can you step outside and make that procedure better?
GEN. SAID: It's not step outside.. It's you're sitting in this...
Q: Let me take a step back. How can you -- how can you institutionalize taking that step back?
GEN. SAID: Yes, so that's what the -- that's what the operational commanders are currently assessing the report to figure out in such unique circumstances, again, I keep emphasizing this because you cant compare to the 99.9 percent of the strikes you're familiar with. This is unique.
By the way in the retrograde window over four months this was the only strike conducted under self defense. Actually if you go back a year I'm almost confident with this. In the last year in Afghanistan we didn't do any self defense strikes, so it is very unique, and the urgency is palpable, right, by the nature of the imminent threat we're defending U.S. forces at HKIA, and it was only three kilometers away.
Q: Thanks. Just where was the strike cell that you're talking about? Where are they physically located?
GEN. SAID: It's...
Q: Is it in Qatar ??
GEN. SAID: It is.
Q: OK, and since you rebuilt this from the beginning, when was it evident that there were kids at the compound in your timeline?
GEN. SAID: So the first time we have confirmation of kids was at the two-minute timeframe.
Q: Two minutes before the impact?
GEN. SAID: Before the trigger pull.
Q: Oh, so it was in support the missile ?
GEN. SAID: Yes, miss. Yes. I'll give you some data here. So just to be fair, so this is important. When we review available video feeds at the time, I can't and we did independent analysis by two separate teams to see what they see in the video, and I have to preface with this context. This is critically important.
And I've been able to find anybody on the planet that's a trained screener or image analysts. Those are the folks that view such things and determine that didn't know that we had had a CIVCAS event on the 29th. I would have chosen them to do the review because I'm telling them review this video, and you don't know what you're looking for. Tell me what you see.
I couldn't do that. Just to be fair here in context they knew they were looking for kids. That's very different when you're sitting down to review something you know what you're looking for. You're being very attentive to that but I couldn't find anybody that didn't know, so they're predisposed to looking for kids. We have to understand that context.
But two independent reviews that I conducted for this investigation, the physical evidence of a child was apart about the two-minute point, but I'm just telling you I put eyes on myself. I mean, they're doing it for me, but I have to see for myself. I'm just saying it is 100 percent not obvious. You have to be like no kidding looking for it, but when you're looking for it certainly after the fact if you asked me it was there evidence of a presence, yes. There was.
Q: So just to be clear, two minutes before the launch.
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: Not two-minutes before impact?
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: OK. And then just one more thing. The communication breakdown that you mentioned in your opening, I'm still unclear about exactly what that means, and can you explain a little bit more? Is that sharing situational? I just don't understand...
GEN. SAID: Let me give you an example of what I mean by that is if you're sitting there and your job is to track a particular target of interest, in this case a vehicle, and you're tracking it without specific information of what are we about to do with this vehicle? When is this strike imminent or are we just -- we've been tracking it for eight hours. What is it exactly that I'm looking for? What additional intel have you received that I need to be assessing outside of the strike cell?
In the strike cell it's pretty tight because you're sitting there in a room and people are talking out live, and everybody's hearing what's being shared. But even that it's in a smaller bubble because there's so many targets being tracked.
When you're remote and outside the strike zone, all you have is communication via chat normally. It's not voice. It's chat. We're sharing like texts on secure chat. If you lose the context of that is being built in the strike cell of here's new intelligence that's telling us to look for this, you're looking at it from a remote location.
Here's what we should be seeing now. Are you seeing it? Here's what we intend to do, and we're going to strike within a few minutes. If you lose that situational awareness your ability to help the strike cell put the context on what they're seeing greatly diminishes. And I'm being a little bit evasive because of the classification of some of the things, but it is a contributing factor. It's not like a make belief thing.
There was a disconnect in the level of situational awareness outside the strike cell that could have helped was it -- if it was available. And frankly it's one of the contributing factors to this assessment that I just mentioned to you about picking up a child. Had that situational awareness been more widely spread and acknowledged that, hey, look. We're getting so close to striking. Folks that are looking at those images and trying to make sure that they clear, their sense of urgency and in clearing would be different because if you're looking at something for eight hours you're desensitized.
OK, we've been tracking it. We can be tracking it for five more days, but if you have enough, I say to go, hey, we're starting to see this. We're starting to really becoming a threat. It is now a threat. It's an acknowledged threat. We're going to strike it. It's two minutes -- your urgency of what you're looking at, what you're trying to clear when it pulls into a brand new compound is just naturally different, right?
There's a human being. You're not desensitized anymore. I've been doing this for eight hours. What's different?
Q: Is it fair to say that people on the ground we're sharing information enough with the strike cell back in Qatar and that was the communication breakdown?
GEN. SAID: No, no, no. It's the -- it's not the people on the ground because we didn't have anybody outside. It's the elements that are supporting the strike itself. Don't just sit in the strike cell itself. There's the strike cell and then there are external elements that support it from other locations remotely.
And I just recommended that the information that's available to the inner circle and the strike cell because the strike cell is big enough and there's too much things -- too many things going on that not everybody even in the strike cell is aware of the nuances. One enhance it within the strike cell, make sure everybody knows everything about that target.
But externally when you're only messaging via chat, the folks supporting you remotely, make sure they have context that they don't have because they're not there with you. The only context you have is if you choose to share it with them via chat. I can't by osmosis pick it up, because I hear you talking. I'm like, another threat stream, and they said something else.
Another thing, and I'm building my essay throughout the day by just sitting there. Physically being there, very different for somebody remote that is tasked to support the strike in a very significant way. But all they're getting is what is being shared via the text. It's called chat. There was a definite disconnect there that could have helped dramatically.
MR. KIRBY: I want to go to phones, I haven't done that yet, Alex Horton Washington Post.
Q: Hey, thanks for getting to me. I wanted to go back to the idea of confirmation bias that you had mentioned. And the link to the earlier attack at H-Karzai. You know, some defense officials have told reporters that, you know, they had believed they were explosives in the car based on the idea that packages may have been the same size as the bomb used at Hamid Karzai.
Which I think is a link in their mind to, you know, this strike happens at the airport, and therefore, there's going to be another event. So, could you speak to the confirmation bias of the attack at H-Karzai, a few days before? And the belief that they were connected? Did it lend to commanders or analysts the idea that this was likely just because there was an attack earlier?
GEN. SAID: No, I appreciate that question. I'm glad you asked that. It's a great question. I'll give you a great example of what would be confirmation bias. So, you all saw the reporting about the computer bag that was exchanged at the first location where the vehicle stopped. And that was significant for the reasons you're alluding to. The -- three days prior to the attack that killed 13 of our service members and a lot of Afghan civilians.
It was believed that the method, or at least the container that had the explosives in it was a computer bag. So, the fact that on that day, on the 29th. We're watching this white Corolla we saw an exchange of a computer bag. It wasn't lost on people to go you know what, that's what was used to contain the explosives three days prior. And that is potentially indicative of here we go again, another computer bag that contains explosives.
True, I can understand that. But could also be just a computer bag. And as it turns out, and we can affirm it. It was a computer bag, right? But you could see that correlation of I've seen this movie before. And I'm going to equate it to that automatically. Now, it's not a one off, that wasn't the thing that went computer bag and therefore it's a target of interest.
It starts to build on itself in multiple different settings. Throughout the eight-hour window to the point that it became that is the target. And we've met the threshold to strike.
MR. KIRBY: Nancy Youssef .
Q: Thank you. Sir how many people were involved in a reading of the intelligence and the decision to strike? And also, on what basis of the U.S. determined that the target was a member of ISIS? And finally, you said and your second recommendation, that one thing that needs to happen is of U.S. needs to enhance it situational awareness.
I guess I'm having a hard time understanding how much more awareness the U.S. could have after 20 years of war. You also mentioned that there was a disconnect in the strike cell where everyone wasn't aware of nuances.
And so, I guess my question is, given how long the U.S. has been in Afghanistan, and how long they got the strike. Why isn't the recommendation to revamp how such strikes are conducted? From what I can tell you're talking about tweaks around the edges. But what you're describing are fundamental problems.
GEN. SAID: Yes, no, I appreciate the questions. And I think I caught three of them. So, in terms of the total number of folks involved in the strike itself, it's, I'll give you the exact number, I don't have top of my head, but it's quite a few. I think, in the innermost circle of decision making, and an assessment and analysis, it would be fair to say somewhere between five and 10.
But there are broader folks supporting the overall strike, but we can give you a little bit more specific numbers, if you'd like. On the assessment that the individual was a member of ISIS-K. I know where location is. Again, it was the correlation of what at the time was viewed as credible intelligence to what was being observed in real time. What I mean by that, let me just be specific, we have no reason to question the intelligence.
What likely broke down is the -- was not the intelligence, but the correlation of that intelligence to a specific house. The inference that what the intelligence is talking about is that house and that car, and there's an art to that. And that's where the disconnect and correlation broke down throughout the day. On the issue of awareness, I wasn't talking about enhancing, overall U.S. situational awareness. I'm talking about enhancing the sharing information and the overall awareness of a pending strike or a high interest track within the strike cell itself and the supporting elements.
But you raise an interesting point that I should have raised. So, the intelligence that we had that day, although significant was also, but this should become sense to you, right? We're exfiltrating the next day. So, you can imagine the level of intelligence has been dramatically reduced by that point. We don't have Afghan partners on the ground.
We don't have our own forces on the ground. So, the sources and intelligence streams are constrained. But that was obviously because of the fact that we were retrograding, and the expo is the very next day. So that just to be clear, I'm not addressing situational awareness broadly about U.S. situational awareness and intelligence. I didn't assess that I'm talking about intelligence within the strike cell.
And they have to work with what they have, and they had a high priority and received -there was, I didn't see any breakdown in receipt of intelligence. If it was available, it was given to them. But we have to acknowledge the intelligence we had given that we're one day out from exfil was not what we've been used to when we had boots on the ground. And we had a lot of Afghan partners that could help us and eyes. You know eyes and ears are very helpful.
Q: How is it possible to say with 10 civilians killed and no territory eliminated that this wasn't a violation of law or the law of war here? Given the level of this mistake, if the strike cell had, had more time and yet made the same mistake. Is that a violation of the law or the law of war? Or is it not time dependent, and it simply wouldn't have been in violation of law?
GEN. SAID: Yes, no, I'm glad you asked that question. That's important, because it's not lost on us the severity, the outcome of the fact that we killed 10 Afghan civilians. But I don't have to tell this, you all know this, right? Mistakes do happen in military operations and the assessment, let me tell you, my assessment of how we walk through this.
I'm trying to figure out or what I did figure out is where the interpretations at the time reasonable based on the information that they had. Were the associated decisions based on the information they had reasonable? Were they are -- if they weren't, if they were arbitrary, capricious, random? I asked why did you think that was a threat? They had no Intel stream to say that was a threat.
They just made it up. I'm like, OK, that that that is a very different ballgame. Right? You're now being -- it's dereliction at that point. But when you look at a complicated operation like this in a complicated setting, that I described in the context of what is going on at any given day. And what they had available to them and -- bless you -- and the time constraints of a perceived threat to U.S. forces where we just lost 13 numbers, you know, three days prior.
In that context, I found, given the information they have, and the analysis that they did. I understand they reached the wrong conclusions. But you could have said it's this or that. Was it reasonable to conclude what they concluded based on what they had, it was not unreasonable, it just turned out to be incorrect? So, my point is, we've had mistaken in the conduct of military operations. Unfortunately, we'll have others in the future, more in the future.
The issue here is to figure out what we could have done better to make sure this never happens again. I never found an instance where somebody is -- I ask a question of why did you decide that? And I got crickets, or I got an illogical answer. Or I got no reason. I got a random decision.
I didn't see that at all. And again, I wish I could share the classified information. I'm confident you would agree with me. It's just unfortunate when you're getting that volume of data, you're tracking so many threat streams. This confirmation bias thing starts to build, you're trying to interpret things the best you can. And you don't have time, because I'm just telling you, I mean, just think about it to say if this was a real threat, and it did kill us forces on H-Karzai.
And the folks involved didn't do anything about it, we might be investigating them today. So, it's a tough scenario to be and it was a mistake. It was an honest mistake. It's important to say throughout the investigation, everybody I interviewed under oath. I didn't have people saying I thought it was this and I was uncomfortable here, and I voiced a concern. By the way, I interviewed them separately. I didn't put them in a group, so there's no group thing here.
And I instructed them not to talk to each other. So, it's there's no cross feeding going on. And they all had a genuine belief based on the information, they had interpretations that was a threat to U.S. forces. An imminent threat to U.S. forces. That's a mistake. It's a regrettable mistake. It's an honest mistake. I understand the consequences, but it's not criminal conduct random conduct negligence.
Q: Thank you General. Just want to verify couple of pieces of information with you. So, the car that was targeted was during that moment, it was parked it wasn't moving right?
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: And it was parked, I believe you first said three kilometers, but then you said two kilometers from the airport?
GEN. SAID: It's approximately three kilometers west southwest of the airport, it started farther away. But throughout the day, it moves, made multiple stops and ultimately got within three kilometers. And it was stopped it was in a compound.
Q: And then it was parked in a civilian urban area?
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: So, a car that was parked anything between three to two kilometers from the airport, in a civilian area. Can you help me understand how was that considered an imminent threat?
GEN. SAID: Yes, I know. Yes, go ahead.
Q: But it's a car parked in a civilian area? So, by default, whoever was in charge of targeting it should take into consideration that there will be civilians, or the possibility of civilians, including children.
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: How do these two things happen? And I have a follow up at the end of this.
GEN. SAID: Yes, so glad you asked these questions. So, on the imminence of the threat, the fact that it was three kilometers by the way, doesn't take that long to try to move three kilometers and get to HKIA. But remember...
Q: In doing that my understanding is sometimes it took you like an hour to just to drive short distances because of the chaos in the city and I was in the airport.
GEN. SAID: Sure, but it's so here's the critical issue, though. What the folks thought that were targeting at the time, where a vehicle that contained somebody associated with ISIS-K but more importantly, they believed the vehicle contained explosives. And here's the risk were people, the folks conducting the strike have to balance the risk to force. Is if it contains explosives, and it parks and let's say it has S-Vests, right? Explosive vests, and they're removed from the car.
I had a concentrated in a bunch of S-Vests sitting the car, the minute they're removed from the car, and 10 people are wearing S-Vests running around, it's impossible for us to neutralize that threat. I need to neutralize they need to neutralize the explosives while they're aggregated. And they believed although incorrectly, I got it. At the time they believe based on the intelligence that, that car contains explosive material.
They weren't certain was its S-Vests or pieces of explosive material that could be inserted into a computer bag like the attack three days prior. But you cannot take the risk of allowing that -- you could but you can't overcome it. Take the risk of allowing those explosives that are concentrated that you can take out with one strike to get this aggregated. And distributed very quickly by the way, all they have to do is take it out of the car and you can't hit the same thing.
So, there was a deliberate decision of I need to deal with this aggravated threat. Wow. It's concentrated, I can deal with it. On the on the civilian area, yes, so it's, you know, it's highly unusual to conduct operations downtown Kabul. But again, you know, self-defense and risk to force. But the report articulates measures that were taken to as much as possible mitigate the risk of casualties. And what I mean by that is, they thought that they had cleared the compound. It's not like people were -- they didn't know, the number of individuals in the compound.
They were all convinced, everybody we interviewed under oath, we listened to the communications of the strike. We looked at the text, which we have of the strike. To see if they're just telling us that, everybody believed they understood what was in the compound. Unfortunately, incorrectly, right of there aren't children there. That's one, the second thing is they attempted to minimize the collateral damage by -- we got to be careful on classification. But the way you weaponize a strike, you can adjust the fusing to minimize the collateral damage estimate.
And they went to that measure, although they were executing it rapidly. They went to that extreme to go, let's try to fuse the weapon in such a way to dramatically reduce the collateral damage. So, they saw the compound with relatively high walls. The gate is closed, so containing the blast. So, to your point, it's not a random, it's not like we showed up at the house and somebody, you know, destroyed the house.
You could hear the calms of the weaponeering what they're trying to do to mitigate the threat. They were convinced that the compound didn't have children in it. Turns out to be wrong, right? Had they not taken these steps? I might have reached a point like your colleague was telling me. Hey how were you -- what steps were you taking to try to minimize the risk of casualties?
MR. KIRBY: Yes, quickly.
Q: On the question of the law of war and...
GEN. SAID: What I'm sorry.
Q: On the law of war. So...
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: ...you said there were no violations here. I mean, is it because there was no intention because there was military necessity? Was it's proportional? What I'm getting at here is basically in theory and any nation can claim impunity because they have classified information. They can talk about imminent threat, conducting something that's self-defense and say we didn't violate any law.
GEN. SAID: Yes, no, that's a good question. I think you all know the overall principles of the law of war of military necessity, proportionality, distinction, and discrimination. That's what I'm talking about when you're talking about that. And then specifically applied to this particular scenario, which is self-defense.
It's the key elements there to trigger that, for necessity, we would be hostile to act or hostile intent. So again, had I questioned, the team reviewed the material to go, there is no way on the planet any reasonable person would conclude that is, in any way shape, or form a risk to U.S. forces or a threat. That would have been a very different outcome in the investigation. That is unreasonable.
That is a violation. That is almost direliction, right? Because it's random. But when you see the information that they have in the analysis applied. And you go, OK, I could see how they can get wrapped into this as the threat. Not only a threat, but the threat. It was mistake. It was mistaken.
MR. KIRBY: Just a couple more. Lucas.
Q: General, Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News, why are you looking at that car to begin with. And who approved the strike?
GEN. SAID: So again, need to be careful in classification, but the intelligence that we were receiving highlighted particular vehicles or types of vehicles. And also painted a picture or of where the vehicles might go. And that such vehicles would be associated with the attack on the 29th. The reason we fixated on that particular vehicle, is it correlated to some of these Intel streams in terms of color and type.
And then this correlation started to happen in terms of location. But it's not hard -- again, if I could talk classified to go, how did they correlate? It's, you wouldn't be going, that is crazy. You're like, OK, I can see it. It just turns out to be wrong, but that's how we started on that particular vehicle. It's make, color, and then its movements throughout the day and where it might have gone made it a vehicle of interest. I'm sorry, what was your second question?
Q: Who approved the strike?
GEN. SAID: Yes, the target engagement authority is the ground force commander.
Q: Who is that?
GEN. SAID: It's a Major General Donahue.
Q: And are you also investigating the strike on August 27 in Nangarhar?
GEN. SAID: I'm not.
Q: On the car was there actually, a Toyota, that was a threat to U.S. forces? Or you just hit the wrong car? Or was it actually non-existent. So, to track as a whole was it wrong?
GEN. SAID: To your question. I think I understand it. We actually never ended up tracking the actual Toyota Corolla. We didn't. It certainly wasn't the one we did track and struck. We just didn't pick up the Toyota Corolla that we believe we should have picked up that might have been involved in something that's worth knowing.
Q: Some intelligence official speaking to the press saying that actually, seconds after the launch, it was reported to the strike cell that actually the target is wrong. Was there -- have you seen during your investigation that there were certain attacks from the intelligence to inform the strike cell that actually the target is wrong or just signal?
GEN. SAID: No. I -- so the initial indication that -- so every time we do a strike, you do a pre-strike analysis of what did we just strike. That combined with media coverage and for folks on the ground is how we first started to, you know, understand that there were civilians involved in this. But in terms of intelligence saying that you struck the wrong vehicle, that there's not -- that didn't happen, not.
MR. KIRBY: David.
Q: The thing you said about two minutes before the strike, when you reviewed the tapes, you saw that they were children.
GEN. SAID: One.
Q: One child in real time.
GEN. SAID: Yes.
Q: Did anybody watching the feed see that child? Or did all of this awareness come after the fact?
GEN. SAID: After the fact. So, they 100 percent did not pick up on the child. And it's not because they said that, again, I have their chats, from the time preserved. We have the comms. We have their testimony under oath. And what they perceive to exist at the compound at the time did not include any women or children.
MR. KIRBY: And last question.
Q: Thank you go ahead.
Q: After the strike, they immediately came out and said there were subsidiary explosions that were so huge, could leave no doubt that it was a righteous target. How do you get that wrong? I mean, you're looking at the video, you would know if there was other explosions?
GEN. SAID: Yes, no, another good question. So, we did an analysis on that. A pretty detailed technical analysis to figure out for ourselves independently. If that strike or the what they perceive to be a secondary, and therefore, we hit a weapons cache and the car was just that. And the technical analysis concluded, which was shared prior, but we did our own.
Was no, the secondary was very muted, and highly unlikely that was any explosives in the car. More likely that I mean, we don't know what it was, but it could be a propane tag in the backyard typical in Afghanistan or something else. But to be fair, I -- you could infer a little bit of confirmation bias in here. But to be fair, to those observing the strike, I looked at it.
There's a typical pattern of explosion when you employ the weapon that was employed in that particular day. And this one was more pronounced than normal. That's acknowledged by all, even anybody that looks at to go you know what, that's more pronounced that what we've normally seen. Everybody I interviewed under oath that we saw the actual explosion, said the same thing.
We've seen hundreds of such weapon strikes, and this one seemed significantly more pronounced. I put eyes on it. It is more pronounced. But again, I'm not saying this is the cause, but you can infer into its confirmation bias as well of slightly more pronounced we hit the explosives in the car. Could be something else, like I said, a propane tank in the backyard and Afghan backyard or something else. But the conclusive analysis is it's highly unlikely that we had any explosives in that car.
MR. KIRBY: Thanks, everybody. We have to let the General go.
GEN. SAID: Thank you all good afternoon. You got more to do right?
MR. KIRBY: That's right.
Q: Sorry, I drank your water.
MR. KIRBY: OK, I know we've been at this for an hour or so. But I do have a just a couple of things at the top here. As you think you saw yesterday, the White House announced a new comprehensive suicide prevention strategy to reduce military veteran suicide. The strategy is built on five priorities improving lethal means safety, enhancing crisis care, increasing access to effective care, addressing upstream risk, and protective factors.
And increasing research coordination data sharing and evaluation. The strategy is aligned with the department's approach to suicide prevention and ongoing efforts. As well as including additional federal partners which will be the Departments of Energy, Justice, Labor and Homeland Security. Which will help us enhance our interagency and public private collaboration to address this very important issue.
Obviously, we refer you to the White House for more information on this cross-sector evidence informed approach. But the department is honored to be a part of this larger effort. And I think you've heard the Secretary talk about the need to continue to do much more on suicide prevention. Today, I think you also saw the Department released its 2021 report on military insecurity developments involving the People's Republic of China. You can find a full report on our web site, that congressionally mandated report serves as an authoritative assessment on military and security developments involving the PRC.
Report illustrates the importance of meeting the department's top pacing challenges presented by the PRCs increasingly capable military and its regional and global ambitions. And then lastly, on the schedule note, I think you also saw the Secretary met today with the Singapore Minister of Defense Eng at the Pentagon to discuss ways to broaden our bilateral defense cooperation. This meeting is their second face to face meeting following the Secretary's visit to Singapore in July. He and the minister today affirmed the enduring nature of the U.S. Singapore defense partnership.
As well as their shared vision of building an even stronger foundation for future cooperation. Secretary Austin reiterated the U.S. commitment to continue joint training and growing bilateral force posture opportunities with Singapore. While collaboratively addressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. We'll have a much more fulsome readout of this meeting later today. And with that, we'll start with any questions. Sylvie?
Q: Hello John, the Iranians have said that U.S. tried to seize some Iranian oil. And they prevented it and I wanted to have your side of the story to explain me what happens?
MR. KIRBY: I've seen the Iranian claims they are absolutely totally false and untrue. There was no such effort by U.S. naval assets to seize anything. What this refers to is back on the 24th of October, U.S. Navy assets did monitor Iranian forces, illegally boarding and seizing a merchant vessel in international waters in the Gulf of Oman.
United States Fifth Fleet directed two ships and aerial assets to closely monitor that situation at no time were U.S. forces attempting to retake or otherwise engage in the situation's -- we acted completely in accordance with the law. So, it's a bogus claim.
Q: OK. They said that, actually, there were two tankers, that the U.S. seized the oil from the first tanker and put it in second tanker. You don't confirm that?
MR. KIRBY: I not only don't confirm it. It's a ridiculous claim. It's absolutely not true. And I would add that Iran's actions, the ones that are true of them, illegally boarding and seizing a merchant vessel constitute a blatant violation of international law. That undermines freedom of navigation in the free flow of commerce.
Q: Do you know, that...
MR. KIRBY: The only seizing that was done was by Iran.
Q: Do you know the nationality of the tanker they seized?
MR. KIRBY: I do, but I'm not at liberty to say that. I think we would refer to that individual nation to speak to that.
Q: On this topic.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: So, based on the video from the Iranian side, and what you just stated. There were U.S. Navy assets and airplanes?
MR. KIRBY: And I said that, they were monitoring.
Q: My question is about the monitoring part. I mean, you have NAVCENT, and you have the IMSCC. Combined together their mission is basically to maritime -- to ensure maritime stability security of the sea lines of communication, deter state sponsored malign activity, reassure the merchant shipping in that region. I mean, evidently the U.S. didn't do any of that. I mean, where's the assurance? And where's the deterrent effect of your presence?
MR. KIRBY: What I can tell you is we acted in accordance with international law, unlike the Iranians, and I'll leave it at that.
Q: There was an intentional effort not to escalate the situation?
MR. KIRBY: We acted in accordance with international law, unlike the Iranians. And we do believe our forward presence in that part of the world has and will continue to act as a deterrent. Does it deter every action by the Iranians and the particularly the IRGC maybe? No, that's one of the reasons why we're there to help as I said, support freedom of navigation and free commerce.
That's one of the reasons why we have a naval presence there. As well as many of our allies and partners. But we acted in accordance with international law. And I think your question would also be well put to the folks in Tehran.
Q: Our correspondent is in Tehran, my follow up on this is what did the (unintelligible) wait until today, to come out with its version of what happened?
MR. KIRBY: There was no waiting Fahdi. We were monitoring, we monitor a lot of activity in that part of the world. It's not about waiting. We are reacting to false claims that the Iranians made today. So, if you're asking me, why am I talking about this today, because you're asking me about it today. Because the Iranians lied about it today. But we monitor maritime traffic every day out there, and not all of it rises to the level of us putting out a press release or talking about it overtly from the podium. Patty.
Q: If you looked at the video, those small ships, small boats were really close to that destroyer. As you know, and we know, after the Cole, that was a huge concern. Did the captain, that the crew do anything to try and sort of swat away the small boats. Were they allowed to do anything? Or were you -- just to order to avoid escalation?
MR. KIRBY: I don't know. I mean, I wasn't there, Patty. So, I'm not going to speak for the commanding officer of the destroyer. And what force protection measures they might have taken. What I can tell you is that the commanding officers of our ships always have the right to self-defense. And multiple ways to defend their ship, and their crew. And they know they had those authorities. They know, they had those capabilities. Now, what actually transpired aboard that particular destroyer, I wouldn't get into. I'd refer you to the Navy or to the central command to talk about that in more detail. Yes.
Q: Was there any possibility that the ship was engaged in piracy of any sort or illicit oil transfers or anything like that?
MR. KIRBY: I don't have any additional information about the ship that the Iranians illegally boarded and seized? And again, I just don't have more.
Q: Why were we tracking?
MR. KIRBY: Why were we tracking?
Q: Yes, why were we tracking?
MR. KIRBY: We monitor a lot of traffic in that part of the world? Yes, Abraham.
Q: Why were we tracking? Yes, thanks John I've got two questions, one on the China military power report. Who went to the hill to brief and who did they brief? And I guess there was a -- it was a classified briefing? Could you kind of provide a little bit more detail on that?
MR. KIRBY: You know, I don't know if I have the exact details of who briefed him? So let me take that question. I just don't have that level of detail here. But obviously, this is a report mandated by Congress. So, we had an obligation to brief the appropriate committees and appropriate people on the hill. And we did that but exactly who did it and when I don't have that level of detail.
Q: OK. So, second question on the as you know, Air Force released to COVID exemption, vaccination requirement deadline was yesterday. They released some numbers about that. I wonder if Secretary Austin is pleased with the Air Force's effort to get vaccination? Are there lessons learned? Does he talk regularly with the service chiefs about how they are conducting their vaccination efforts on deadline? Can you kind of elaborate on his role in that?
MR. KIRBY: The secretary is pleased by the level of effort that the military departments have taken to enact this mandatory vaccine regimen. As a matter of fact he was encouraged by the activity by the military departments before we had to make the vaccine mandatory. As you know, the Delta variant, the very much more lethal Delta variant really contributed to his decision to go ahead and make this a mandatory regimen. But yes, he is pleased by the leadership of the departments. He is aware of their progress and each of them have a different set of deadlines, both for their active component and their reserve, and in some cases their Guard components. He respects those differences. They are keeping him informed. As a matter fact, there is a regular update to -- Deputy Secretary Hicks, so she too is staying right on top of this issue as we move forward.
Q: That 10,000 number for the Air Force at the deadline, that's OK for...
MR. KIRBY: I didn't say that that -- I didn't say it that way, Abraham. I said he is comfortable and pleased with the leadership that the military departments are are showing here. He's not unmindful of the fact that in each of the military departments there are some members who are declining, refusing to take the vaccine, some that are applying for the exemptions, some exemptions that are being granted. And he trusts that the leaders of the military departments, the service secretaries and the service chiefs, will continue to manage this mandatory vaccine regimen in a compassionate and professional manner. That's what is comfortable with.
He continues to believe that these are -- these vaccines are safe and effective. And he continues to want to see every member of the armed forces get the vaccine so that they can be safer, they can be more ready, and that they can contribute to more ready units, and, frankly, that they can help contribute to the health and -- and welfare of their own families and their -- and the communities in which they live. So he absolutely -- nothing has changed about his desire to see every member of the armed forces get vaccinated. Obviously, excluding those who, for medical purposes, you know, at their doctors' discretion, are not able to. But short of that, he wants to see everybody vaccinated.
Q: Thanks, John.
MR. KIRBY: Yes.
Q: On Turkey, Turkey is insisting that the U.S. must cease its support to the Syrian partners SDF. And they have reinforced troops in Syria for a possible attack on your Syria partners. What is the Pentagon's position on the Turkish request?
MR. KIRBY: Our position with respect to our cooperation with the SDF has not changed, nor has our mission in Syria, which is solely focused on the ISIS threat. That threat remains. Those missions continue. That cooperation continues.
Anything else? In the back there.
Q: Thank you, sir. Army General Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. AFRICOM, and the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Dr. Sherwood recently visited U.S. personnel in Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia, and Niger. Are there any more plans to add more U.S. troops to those regions in East Africa?
MR. KIRBY: I have no troop announcements or personnel changes to make with respect to our posture in in Africa. As you can probably tell from the agenda of that trip, there is a lot to talk about. There a lot of partners doing a lot of critical work in -- in the counterterrorism realm. And General Townsend remains laser-focused on that. But I have no troop announcements to make.
Q: Can you characterize in sort of an overview how the discussion went this morning between the Secretary and…
MR. KIRBY: That was a very good discussion. Again, follow-up to our visit to Singapore in July, and the secretary's first meeting with the minister and with officials there. There is a lot of things -- and you'll see this in our readout.
We'll have more detail on the meeting in terms of cooperative initiatives that we are going to undertake going forward. But we have a strong bilateral relationship from a defense perspective with Singapore and we look forward to deepening that going forward.
OK, thanks everybody.
Q: Can you take a couple of phone questions, John?