US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

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A Somali soldier near the wreckage of car in Mogadishu, Somalia, Thursday March 7, 2019. (AP)
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A boy walks past the site of a car bomb attack near a security checkpoint in the Somali capital, not far from the presidential palace in Mogadishu on March 7, 2019. (AFP)
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Rescuers carry a man who was injured in an attack on a restaurant by Somali Islamist group al Shabaab in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia, October 1, 2016. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 March 2019
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US military, aid group at odds over Somalia civilian deaths

  • The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians

WASHINGTON: There is credible evidence that US military airstrikes in Somalia have killed or wounded nearly two dozen civilians, an international human rights group said Tuesday, charging that the Pentagon is not adequately investigating potential casualties.
US Africa Command officials immediately disputed the allegations laid out in a report by Amnesty International, and insisted that the military has investigated 18 cases of possible civilian casualties since 2017 and found that none were credible.
The seemingly contradictory information underscores the complexities of military operations against the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab group in Somalia, involving airstrikes by several allied nations in hostile, remote locations that are difficult to access safely.
The report came the same day that a Somali intelligence official and two local residents said a US drone strike on Monday killed civilians.
The Somali official said the drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected militants and apparently hit another vehicle that may have been carrying civilians. The official was not authorized to talk with the media and did so on condition of anonymity.
Residents concurred with the official’s assessment.
Mohamed Siyad, an elder in Lanta Buro, a village near the farming town of Afgoye, Somalia, told The Associated Press that four civilians including employees of a telecom company were killed.
“They were known to us — they had nothing to do with Al-Shabab,” he said by phone.
Another resident, Abdiaziz Hajji, said that the drone destroyed the vehicle. “Bodies were burnt beyond recognition,” he said. “They were innocent civilians killed by Americans for no reason. They always get away with such horrible mistakes.”
In a rare move, US Africa Command on Tuesday mentioned those possible casualties in a press release about the strike and said officials will look into the incident. But, more broadly, US defense officials said casualty allegations in Somalia are questionable because Al-Shabab militants make false claims or force local citizens to do the same.
Amnesty International, however, said it analyzed satellite imagery and other data, and interviewed 65 witnesses and survivors of five specific airstrikes detailed in the report. The report concludes that there is “credible evidence” that the US was responsible for four of the airstrikes, and that it’s plausible the US conducted the fifth strike. It said 14 civilians were killed and eight injured in the strikes.
“Amnesty International’s research points to a failure by the US and Somali governments to adequately investigate allegations of civilian casualties resulting from US operations in Somalia,” the report said, adding that the US doesn’t have a good process for survivors or victims’ families to self-report losses.
US Africa Command said it looked at the five strikes and concluded there were no civilian casualties. In the fifth case the command said there were no US strikes in that area on that day.
The group’s report and Defense Department officials also agreed that the strikes usually take place in hostile areas controlled by Al-Shabab militants. And those conditions, the report said, “prevented Amnesty International organization from conducting on-site investigations and severely limited the organization’s ability to freely gather testimonial and physical evidence.”
US defense officials told reporters that American troops were on the ground at strike locations in a very limited number of cases. Even in those instances, they said, US troops ordered strikes to protect local Somali forces they were accompanying, and there was little opportunity to investigate possible civilian casualties at that moment.
Still, the rights group concluded that the US military’s insistence that there have been zero civilian deaths is wrong.
“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smoke screen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, a senior adviser at Amnesty International.
US officials countered that they have access to information not readily available to nonmilitary organizations, including observations from people on the ground at the site and post-strike intelligence gathering from various electronic systems. Those systems can include overhead surveillance and data collected through cyber operations and other intercepted communications and electronic signals.
The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
They said the US rigorously assesses targets in advance to make sure no civilians will be hurt or killed.
The officials noted that Kenya and Ethiopia also conduct airstrikes in the region, but provided no details. There are 500 to 600 US troops in Somalia at any time.
The pace of US airstrikes in Somalia has escalated during the Trump administration, from 47 in all of 2018 to 28 already this year. So far more than 230 militants have been killed in 2019, compared to 338 killed in all of 2018.
In March 2017, President Donald Trump approved greater authorities for military operations against Al-Shabab, allowing increased strikes in support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali forces.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, who heads Africa Command, told reporters in a recent interview that Al-Shabab controls about 25 percent of the country and the key effort is to help the government regain control of its land.
“The intention is to keep the pressure on that network,” he said.
He said there are three categories of strikes: ones to target senior Al-Shabab leaders, ones to take out training camps or involve Daesh militants in the north, and ones aimed at helping the government increase security and regain control of the country. He said the last group involves the most strikes.


In unflattering detail, Mueller report reveals Trump actions to impede inquiry

Updated 35 min 20 sec ago
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In unflattering detail, Mueller report reveals Trump actions to impede inquiry

WASHINGTON: Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on his inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 US election described in extensive and sometimes unflattering detail how President Donald Trump tried to impede the probe, raising questions about whether he committed the crime of obstruction of justice.
The release of the 448-page report on Thursday after a 22-month investigation marked a milestone in Trump’s tumultuous presidency and inflamed partisan passions ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.
Democrats said the report contained disturbing evidence of wrongdoing by Trump that could fuel congressional investigations, but there was no immediate indication they would try to remove him from office through impeachment.
Mueller built an extensive case indicating the Republican president had committed obstruction of justice but stopped short of concluding he had committed a crime, though he did not exonerate the president. Mueller noted that Congress has the power to address whether Trump violated the law.
“The conclusion that Congress may apply the obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” the report stated.
Mueller also unearthed “numerous links” between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign and said the president’s team “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” referring to hacked Democratic emails.
But Mueller, a former FBI director, concluded there was not enough evidence to establish that Trump’s campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
Trump appeared to be in a celebratory mood, saying at a White House event with wounded US troops he was “having a good day” following the report’s release, adding, “It’s called no collusion, no obstruction.” Trump, whose legal team called the report “a total victory,” has long described Mueller’s inquiry as a “witch hunt.”
Trump headed to his resort in Florida for the weekend, and on landing on Thursday night told a crowd of well wishers at the airport: “Game over folks, now it’s back to work.”
The report, with some portions blacked out to protect sensitive information, provided fresh details of how Trump tried to force Mueller’s ouster, directed members of his administration to publicly vouch for his innocence and dangled a pardon to a former aide to try to prevent him from cooperating with the special counsel.
“The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report stated.
The report said that when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Trump in May 2017 that the Justice Department was appointing a special counsel to look into allegations that his campaign colluded with Russia, Trump slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m f***ed.”
Attorney General William Barr told a news conference Mueller had detailed “10 episodes involving the president and discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.” Barr concluded last month after receiving a confidential copy of Mueller’s report that Trump had not actually committed a crime.
Trump was wary of FBI scrutiny of his campaign and him personally, the report said. “The evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the president personally that the president could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns,” the report stated.
Any impeachment effort would start in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, but Trump’s removal would require the support of the Republican-led Senate — an unlikely outcome. Many Democrats steered clear of impeachment talk on Thursday, although a prominent liberal congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, embraced the idea.
“Many know I take no pleasure in discussions of impeachment. I didn’t campaign on it, & rarely discuss it unprompted,” she said on Twitter. “But the report squarely puts this on our doorstep.”
The House, when it voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998, included obstruction of justice as one of the charges. The Senate ultimately decided not to remove Clinton from office.
The Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold Nadler, said he would issue subpoenas to obtain the unredacted Mueller report and asked Mueller to testify before the panel by May 23.
Nadler told reporters in New York Mueller probably wrote the report with the intent of providing Congress a road map for future action, but the congressman said it was too early to talk about impeachment.
“Mueller’s report paints a damning portrait of lies that appear to have materially impaired the investigation, a body of evidence of improper contacts with a foreign adversary, and serious allegations about how President Trump sought to obstruct a legitimate, and deeply important, counterintelligence investigation,” the Democratic chairs of six House committees said in a statement.

Election meddling
The inquiry laid bare what the special counsel and US intelligence agencies have described as a Russian campaign of hacking and propaganda to sow discord in the United States, denigrate 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump, the Kremlin’s preferred candidate. Russia has denied election interference.
In analyzing whether Trump obstructed justice, Mueller looked at a series of actions by Trump, including his attempts to remove Mueller and limit the scope of his probe and efforts to prevent the public from knowing about a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between senior campaign officials and Russians.
In June 2017, Trump directed White House counsel Don McGahn to tell the Justice Department’s No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, that Mueller had conflicts of interest and must be removed, the report said. McGahn did not carry out the order. McGahn was home on a Saturday that month when Trump called him at least twice.
“You gotta do this. You gotta call Rod,” McGahn recalled the president as saying, according to the report.
House Judiciary Democrat Jamie Raskin pointed to Trump’s effort to get McGahn to fire Mueller and then lie about being told to do so as an area of interest for lawmakers, and said McGahn and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions could be valuable witnesses as the committee moves forward.
“There are these dramatic episodes of presidential attempts to interfere with the Mueller investigation, and I think people would like to hear from a number of officials involved. White House counsel McGahn jumps out as an important witness,” he told Reuters.
It also said there was “substantial evidence” Trump fired James Comey as FBI director in May 2017 due to his “unwillingness to publicly state that the president was not personally under investigation.” The FBI headed the inquiry at the time.
Mueller cited “some evidence” suggesting Trump knew about former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s controversial calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, but evidence was “inconclusive” and could not be used to establish intent to obstruct.
The report said Trump directed former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to ask Sessions to say the Russia investigation was “very unfair.”
Barr, a Trump appointee, seemed to offer cover for Trump’s actions by saying the report acknowledges “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”
“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.
Mueller’s team did not issue a subpoena to force Trump to give an interview to the special counsel because it would have created a “substantial delay” at a late stage in the investigation, the report said. Trump refused an interview and eventually provided only written answers.
The report said Mueller accepted the longstanding Justice Department view that a sitting president cannot be indicted on criminal charges, while still recognizing that a president can be criminally investigated.
The report listed 14 criminal referrals for investigation by US prosecutors but 12 of those were fully blacked out because they are open investigations.
Mueller said evidence he collected indicates Trump intended to encourage his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, not to cooperate and that the evidence supports the idea that Trump wanted Manafort to believe he could receive a presidential pardon.
The report said the special counsel’s team determined there was a “reasonable argument” that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., violated campaign finance laws, but did not believe they could obtain a conviction.
The report cited Trump’s repeated efforts to convince Sessions to resume oversight of the probe after he had recused himself because of his own prior contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.