Congressmen demand answers after CNN report contradicts Pentagon investigations into deadly Kabul airport attack

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Nine Republican members of Congress have written to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urging him to explain discrepancies between CNN reporting last month about the ISIS-K attack that led to the deaths of 13 US servicemen and 170 Afghans outside Kabul airport in August 2021, and the conclusions of two Pentagon investigations into the incident.

The CNN report revealed that there were many more episodes of gunfire than the Pentagon has ever admitted, in the wake of the suicide attack in the final days of the American evacuation of Kabul. The reporting included a video obtained by CNN captured by a Marine’s GoPro camera that had not been seen publicly in full before.

The letter was sent on Tuesday by congressmen on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and presented a series of pointed questions for the Pentagon about its investigations into what was the deadliest incident in Afghanistan for decades – a brutal, bloody end point to America’s longest war. The eight congressmen, five of whom are veterans with experience in Afghanistan, urged Austin “in the strongest possible terms to account for the discrepancy between the results of the (US Central Command) CENTCOM investigation and this new reporting,” by CNN.

Much of the controversy about the Pentagon’s two investigations into the attack has focused on gunfire in the aftermath of the blast. Some Marines have told military investigators they felt they were being shot at or opened fire themselves, and 19 Afghan survivors told CNN in 2022 they were shot themselves or witnessed Afghans being shot. But the two Pentagon investigations – released in February 2022 and last month – concluded the only shooting in the aftermath came from US and UK troops in three bursts that were “nearly simultaneous,” and hit no one.

In their letter, the members of Congress said it is “unclear what generated this CENTCOM data point of near-simultaneous gunfire” in three bursts, which is “directly contradicted by the video footage obtained by CNN, which shows 11 episodes of gunfire over nearly four minutes.” They added that, after CNN published the GoPro footage, the Pentagon assured the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it had not seen the video prior to publication, but that the video did not contradict the findings of their investigations.

“While we appreciate CENTCOM’s investigation into the Abbey Gate attack, nearly three years later we still have the same questions that the very US servicemembers captured in the CNN video had, including who was firing the rounds and whether it was the Taliban or another hostile force. We therefore ask you to clarify the volume, incidence, and sources of gunfire at the scene,” the members of Congress wrote.

The Congressmen – Mike Waltz, Darrell Issa, Tim Burchett, Brian Mast, Rich McCormick, Keith Self, Cory Mills and Chris Smith – requested further action by investigators. The chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, was added to the letter Wednesday, his office confirmed.

CNN’s most recent report included an interview with the former head of a major Kabul hospital, Dr. Sayed Ahmadi, who said he and his staff had pulled bullets out of patients from the incident and that over 70 of the dead at their hospital had gunshot wounds. The letter asks why the Pentagon’s investigators did not speak to Dr. Ahmadi, or any other Afghans. The Pentagon has said all reports of gunshot wounds are mistaken, and that witnesses who recall extensive shooting – either at Marines or Afghan civilians – are suffering from the effects of blast concussion, or Traumatic Brain Injury.

“Lastly, why do journalists have this video footage and the Department does not? Is there any more footage in the Department’s possession that has not yet been made public? If so, please release such footage immediately and confirm that no more video recordings exist of which the Department is aware,” they added. “The truth must come out.”

The Office of the Secretary of Defense told CNN in a statement that, as with all congressional correspondence, it would respond directly to the members who wrote the letter. “We honor the service and sacrifice of our thirteen service members who were killed at Abbey Gate and remain fully committed to ensuring our Gold Star families have the support and information they need. This will always be a sacred obligation for the Department of Defense,” James Adams, a department spokesman, said.

This image from a video released by the Department of Defense shows US Marines around the scene at Abbey Gate outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021, after a suicide bomber detonated an explosion. - Department of Defense/AP
This image from a video released by the Department of Defense shows US Marines around the scene at Abbey Gate outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 26, 2021, after a suicide bomber detonated an explosion. - Department of Defense/AP

Parents accuse Pentagon of being misleading

Growing Congressional scrutiny of the attack comes as the parents of seven Marines who died in the incident – Jared Schmitz, Humberto Sanchez, Taylor Hoover, Nicole Gee, Kareem Nikoui, Hunter Lopez and Rylee McCollum – accused the Pentagon of misleading them.

“As parents, we have always had the suspicion that we were not told the entire truth of how our children were murdered at the Abbey Gate on 8/26/21. The recent discovery of new video released by CNN directly contradicts and exposes outright lies from our recent briefing last month from CENTCOM officials,” the Gold Star families said in a statement they sent to CNN.

“We are consumed with anger at the betrayal from the Biden Administration. This is only the beginning for us to expose the cover up that has and is still taking place. The Biden Administration wants us to go away silently, but we will not!” they added.

The new CENTCOM commander, Gen. Erik Kurilla, ordered in September last year a supplemental review of the military’s 2022 investigation into the incident, and the families of dead servicemen were briefed last month on its results. Its focus was mainly whether the ISIS-K suicide bomber could have been stopped and determined the attack “could not have been preventable at the tactical level.” The families have long maintained more could have been done to stop the ISIS-K suicide bomber.

The letter and statement emerged as CENTCOM released over a thousand pages of witness accounts and evidence from the supplemental review. The 1,214 pages offer a variety of accounts of the aftermath of the blast, some of which appear to support the supplemental review’s conclusions. Yet others contain previously unseen witness testimony of gunfire in the aftermath which appears to jar with the two investigations’ conclusions.

Two apparent Marine accounts of the blast aftermath provide similar descriptions of a US personnel member being calmed down as he tried to load a .50-caliber heavy machine gun in a sniper tower that overlooked the blast site, and then apparently not firing the weapon. Names of the US personnel were redacted.

One of the service members recalled: “The Marines on the ground were shooting towards the blast location. But I didn’t see anyone shoot at us.” He added the gunfire continued for “probably a few minutes,” and then he recalled hearing: “some Gy Sgt [Gunnery Sergeant] yelled up to the tower saying we were taking small arms fire and find them and f**king kill them. I’m not sure of his name.”

Another eyewitness said he was inside the sniper tower above the blast site when two rounds hit the window in front of him and a third round narrowly missed him.

Afghan people hoping to leave the country wait outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 26, 2021 – before the attack took place. - Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/File
Afghan people hoping to leave the country wait outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 26, 2021 – before the attack took place. - Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/File

The evidence also suggests the Pentagon may have more video footage than it has acknowledged in public. A service member tells the review there were nine drones operational over the airport in the immediate aftermath of the blast, and that he watched feed from these drones for three hours.

The Pentagon has released five edited minutes of footage from the aftermath. The account also says “ISR” – likely a surveillance camera – was available at the scene shortly after the blast. Not all of this footage has been released. In another account, a Marine appears to hand over a GoPro to the supplemental review team.

Army Lt. Col. Rob Lodewick, public affairs adviser to the supplemental review team, said the two investigations had maintained their “utmost focus” on a “transparent, exhaustive and conclusive accounting” to the families of the dead US personnel, US military and public. “Any accusations of a deliberate attempt [by military officials] to mislead or deceive remain categorically false.”

Yet he added investigators “recognize the potential for new information to emerge over time” and that CENTCOM “welcome any additional information and imagery available to help ensure a comprehensive understanding of the attack on Abbey Gate from as many perspectives as possible.”

Lodewick noted the review team compiled 4,000 pages of evidence and “considered the totality of the information, provided by over 190 interviews, when concluding there was no complex attack.” He added all “imagery, including voluntarily provided personal GoPro footage, was thoroughly examined” and handled in “accordance with DoD and Service policies.”

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