U.S. drone strike kills Marine and Navy medic..

Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Smith, 26, and Navy medic Benjamin D. Rast, 23, were killed by a missile strike when Marine commanders in Afghanistan mistook them for Taliban, even though the analysts watching the Predator’s video feed were unable to confirm that the men were actually enemy fighters.

A 381-page Pentagon report concludes that the Marine officers on the scene and the Air Force crew in Terre Haute, Indiana whom were controlling the drone were unaware that analysts watching the firefight via live video at a third location were not sure about the targets’ identity.

It is unclear which Marine officer ordered the airstrike because the names in the report are redacted. A senior Marine officer familiar with the investigation said commanders at the battalion level would have the ultimate authority, not the lieutenant who led the platoon during the battle.

The missile attack occurred in April at 8:51 a.m. in Helmand province after Smith and his platoon came under enemy fire. The platoon had split up while trying to clear a road near the crossroads town of Sangin, an area in which Marines were engaged in nearly daily combat with insurgents.

Smith, Rast and another Marine had separated from the others and had taken cover behind a hedgerow, where they were firing on insurgents in a cluster of nearby buildings. The Predator drone’s infrared cameras picked up the heat signatures of the three men and detected muzzle flashes from their weapons as the fired at insurgents.

Air Force analysts watching the live video noted that the gunfire appeared aimed away from the other Marines, who were behind the three. The analysts reported that gunshots were “oriented to the west, away from friendly forces,” the Pentagon report says. The Predator pilot in Nevada and the Marine commanders on the ground “were never made aware” of the analysts’ assessment.

Pentagon officials told Smith’s father that the combat veteran, on his fourth deployment, knew the airstrike was coming, but assumed the missile was aimed at a suspected Taliban position in a building 200 yards away. Smith declined to take cover in a canal with other Marines because he wanted to make sure the Predator hit the insurgent target.

The report blames the attack on a fatal mix of poor communications, faulty assumptions and “a lack of overall common situational awareness.” It recommends that a Marine lieutenant and two sergeants in Smith’s platoon be “formally counseled” and suggests detailed reviews of battlefield procedures, but it said no one involved in the attack was “culpably negligent or derelict in their duties.”

“The chain of events … was initiated by the on-scene ground force commander’s lack of overall situational awareness and inability to accurately communicate his friendly force disposition in relation to the enemy,” the report said.

In early 2009 a predator drone strike killed least 15 Afghan civilians after they were mistaken for a group of Taliban preparing to attack a U.S. special forces unit. Analysts located at an Air Force Special Operations Command in Florida who were watching live battlefield video from the aircraft’s high-altitude cameras warned that there were children present, but were disregarded by the drone operator and by an Army captain, who authorized the airstrike.


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