The top commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East said he was “solely and completely responsible” for declaring that there were no U.S. casualties after Iran’s Jan. 8 missile strike on al-Anbar air base in Iraq. It was the first such statement in public by Gen. Frank McKenzie.
For roughly two months, President Donald Trump and other senior administration officials who echoed McKenzie’s assessment have been accused of covering up the truth about the extent of American injuries, in part to justify not returning fire with a potentially escalatory strike inside Iran.
Testifying before Congress on Thursday, McKenzie said that at no time did President Trump or any other official pressure him to make the assessment, which was quickly repeated by Trump and others. The commanding general of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, said his determination was based on medical evaluations on site immediately after the strike. But when reporters were granted access to the base to assess its extensive damage the following week, some troops said they complained of concussions. On Jan. 16, Defense One first reported that 11 U.S. troops had been flown out of Iraq and diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, or TBI, including concussions, sparking a flurry of allegations that White House and Pentagon officials had hid the truth, which officials denied vehemently. Pentagon officials soon began issuing regular public updates as more troops came forward with symptoms. In its last public count, of Feb. 21, the Defense Department said 110 service members in the attack had been “diagnosed with mild TBI.” In total, 35 of them were evacuated out of Iraq.
As more reports of concussions emerged in late January, Trump said he did not consider concussions to be equal to physical injuries, saying they were “not serious” and similar to “headaches.” And he continued to insist that neither he or his administration had undersold the injuries to the public.
Late in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the CENTCOM budget on Thursday, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, a U.S. Navy Reserve veteran, pressed McKenzie about the perceived “miscommunication.”
“Was CENTCOM forced to give a rushed assessment, or did the White House make an announcement without having any facts?” the senator asked.
“Senator, thank you for the question, I actually would like to talk about that,” McKenzie began. “I am solely and completely responsible for the first notification that there were no casualties. I am the officer who gave that report, based on my assessment of what happened at al-Asad. There was no pressure on me to give that report. That was what we thought in the immediate hours after the attack, because it was not evident to us that there had been concussion injuries.
“You know, maybe if we were smarter we would’ve picked up on that. But there were no kinetic injuries, no one was bleeding, no bones were broken. So, it was our assessment and the assessment of my commanders on the ground but I am the single person who passed that report, so I bear total responsibility for that, with no one else.”
McKenzie continued, saying symptoms of brain injuries can take months to appear. “As you know, Senator, that is not an injury like a broken arm or a broken leg that can be immediately diagnosed on the spot.”
He repeated, “I was never under any pressure at any time to shade this reporting. The secretary of defense never said anything to me about it, the chairman” of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “never said anything to me about it, the president never said anything to me about it.”