The Pentagon named a researcher from a nonprofit to establish and lead a center devoted to civilian protection and harm mitigation, in the wake of reports from previous years that looked at inadvertent civilian casualties resulting from U.S. strikes.
Michael McNerney was tapped by the Pentagon to lead the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence. He previously served as a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, where he published research on civilian protections, according to a Pentagon statement.
The center’s establishment comes as the Pentagon has conducted — or taken part in — a number of investigations into its civilian harm mitigation policies, specifically within U.S. Central Command.
An independent review by the Pentagon in November 2022 concluded that 10 civilian deaths that occurred during a U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan’s capital city amid the final days of the war was not due to misconduct. Later, on Nov. 17, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin initiated a review of another strike in Baghouz, Syria, which killed 70 civilians.
McNerney helped author a March 2022 report during his time at Rand that looked at efforts by U.S. and Kurdish forces in 2017 to liberate the Iraqi city of Raqqa.
“Nothing we present in this report should be interpreted as accusing coalition forces or leaders of violating the law of war,” according to the report McNerney helped write. “[The Pentagon] abided by its policies and procedures, which go beyond the law of war, at multiple levels to help protect civilians during armed conflict.”
The report found that U.S. forces suffered from a lack of intelligence — and that the strategic decision to encircle the city contributed to civilian harm. Rand researchers recommended more extensive planning before battles to determine how strategic decisions might impact efforts to protect civilians.
In January 2022, following the release of the reports and recommendations, Austin issued a memorandum in to develop a Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan. The plan, which was released by the Pentagon in August, included standing up the Civilian Protection Center of Excellence.
“The [CPCoE] will guide [the Pentagon’s] understanding of the capabilities and practices that support civilian harm mitigation and response,” the action plan stated. “The [CPCoE] will be the hub and facilitator of Department-wide analysis, learning, and strategic approaches and will help institutionalize good practices for civilian harm mitigation and response during operations.”
Prior to his time at Rand, McNerney worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a civil servant for 17 years, ending his tenure as principal director for plans in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in 2011.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.