In 2015, We Pried Loose More Government Secrets
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
When the Pentagon admitted in November to likely killing at least four Iraqi civilians in an air strike, War Is Boring and its readers were already aware of the incident and subsequent investigation. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we had obtained a copy of a previously secret database cataloging potential instances of civilian casualties during attacks on Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
In January, we sent a request to the Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in the Middle East for records regarding investigations into civilian casualties incurred during the war with the Islamic State. More than eight months later, U.S. Central Command sent a photocopy of the spreadsheet — describing incidents through May — in the mail.
With surprisingly little redaction, the document outlined dozens of possible mistakes by American pilots, Western allies and Iraqi forces. The details were eye opening and provided a unique look at how the Pentagon was trying to keep itself accountable in a complex and confusing war.
“It … makes clear that the U.S. and its 12 international allies have long known of significant allegations of civilians killed in some 6,500 airstrikes,” Chris Woods of the independent monitoring group Airwars wrote after publishing a copy of the document. “On numerous other occasions … investigators dismissed claims of civilian casualties within 48 hours based on extremely limited information.”
After first reporting on the information, War Is Boring shared the information with The Guardian, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Dutch language RTL News in the Netherlands through Airwars. CBC’s The Fifth Estate incorporated the data into a larger investigative feature into Ottawa’s secretive involvement in the fight against the Islamic State.
The reporting sent ripples across three contingents. “The Globe has learned that Canada’s military is unhappy that the Pentagon has released information that recounts what it told its American ally in confidence,” according to a report in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper at the time.
While these revelations were probably the most significant to come out of our FOIA requests during the year, they were far from the only ones. With more than 200 requests filed since January and hundreds of pages of documents received in return, War Is Boring actively uses freedom of information laws to pry loose government secrets.
Signed into law by Pres. Lyndon Johnson in 1966, America’s Freedom of Information Act gives organizations and individuals the right to ask certain arms of the federal government — Congress is not covered by the legislation, for example — to turn over secret or otherwise squirreled away documents. Government offices can withhold information based on various exemptions.
In addition to the civilian casualty data, we obtained records in 2015 relating to other aspects of the campaign against the Islamic State. After U.S. Pres. Barack Obama announced plans to send commandos to help friendly rebel forces in Syria in October, we dug into our declassified documents to explain how special operators might sneak into this dangerous war zone.
And with efforts to help French forces hit the Islamic State after terrorist attacks in Paris the following month, Air Force histories provided important context about just how the Pentagon shares intelligence with its allies. Through FOIA, we could also report that Washington never really stopped hunting for terrorists in the region, even after pulling the bulk of its troops out of Iraq in 2011. American spy planes are probably still keeping tabs on Iran, too.
Elsewhere in the world, War Is Boring uncovered an investigation into a Colombian helicopter company in Afghanistan. Pentagon investigators accused Vertical de Aviación of dangerous negligence and slammed American officials for giving a sensitive contract to a firm previously alleged to have links with drug cartels, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
Our readers found out that American commandos had quietly returned to neighboring Pakistan, thanks to a small piece of information in a declassified document. They also got a look at America’s South Korean foreign legion — the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army program, with a little more context thanks to other records.
After another request, we combed through records of arms shipments to Yemen. After the internationally recognized government in Sana’a collapsed in February, the Pentagon was forced to admit it had lost track of millions in weapons and other gear shipped to the small country.
Closer to home, additional Air Force documents revealed new problems in the undermanned and overworked drone force, attempts to trim A-10s and other aircraft from the fleet and get the troublesome F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ready for action.
When it came to the flying branch’s unmanned aircraft, six years of declassified official histories highlighted troubling trends. Despite ever increasing demands from the Pentagon, the Air Force still considered the pilotless planes a “novelty” near a decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to one of the historical reviews.
The information gave important context when the Air Force announced its goal of getting rid of all the iconic, but aging MQ-1 Predators entirely by 2018. Records showed the flying branch had actually wanted to ditch the drones two years earlier.
The Pentagon has since made unmanned aircraft a centerpiece in its operations around the world. One briefing explained how friendly governments in Latin America could ask for American drones to spy for them on their enemies.
Other documents highlighted how Predators and the larger Reapers sometimes spend weeks looking for their targets. And while Washington is tight-lipped about how it decides on who to kill and when, we found one Defense Intelligence Agency flow chart that offered some clues.
The Air Force isn’t just having trouble with drones, either. The service has been cutting back on important upgrades for its older F-16 fighter jets, a history explained.
Loathed by the flying branch’s leadership and loved by troops on the ground, records exposed confusing and conflicting plans for the venerable A-10 Warthog. Congress recently passed additional legal protections for the fleet of low- and slow-flying ground attackers.
The Air Force wants to gut the A-10 fleet and cut back on other projects to help pay for the F-35. Underperforming and perpetually over budget, we found out the flying branch had been watering down its expectations in order to declare the stealthy planes ready for combat.
The F-35 was also a key point in a previously unknown and pretty harsh Lockheed Martin briefing to American officials on the state of Taiwan’s air arm. With the increasing threat of Chinese stealth fighters, the Texas-based plane maker argued in favor of giving Taipei new F-16s now in order to avoid having to give them Joint Strike Fighters later on down the road.
On top of these more public projects, the Air Force apparently has — or at least had — a top secret spy plane flying over the Pacific, according to tidbits from another history. And they took a second look at a proposal for a C-130 cargo plane that could land inside of a soccer stadium and then take off again.
Of course, just because we send requests, government agencies aren’t automatically required to give us anything. The FOIA process can often be slow and obtuse. War Is Boring is currently appealing a number of outright denials and other negative responses.
State or local governments have their own rules separate from the federal law. For instance, after a briefing for the Pentagon’s Jade Helm military training exercise appeared online, conspiracy theorists and others concocted a wide array of “real” reasons for the event from a White House plan to take away privately owned guns to a hostile takeover by a foreign, multinational military force.
When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the State Guard to keep an eye on the exercise, we used the Texas Public Information Act to get a copy of his official memo. After the practice sessions wrapped up, a second public records request turned up copies of text messages showing that State Guard commander Brig. Gen. Gerald “Jake” Betty did the bare minimum to monitor the event.
In some cases, the denials have become stories all their own. So far, we have official, signed letters from two governments — Egypt and Yemen — telling the United States to hold back certain pieces of information. By law, foreign authorities have a say in whether or not certain records get released to the public.
Similarly, the radio chatter between Air Force pilots chasing a runaway U.S. Army blimp across Pennsylvania in October is shielded from the FOIA. Since Americans and Canadians run the North American Aerospace Defense Command together, the organization isn’t subject to the law.
But even with these difficulties and the problems inherent in the process, War Is Boring will continue to poke and prod in order to unearth new important and unusual — and maybe even sometimes amusing — new details about how Washington really works.