Pentagon backtracks on Hamas numbers cited by Austin in Congress testimony

‘We can’t independently verify Gaza casualty figures,’ the Pentagon press secretary said.

By JNS

About an hour and 15 minutes into U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s two-hour testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) asked him how many Palestinian women and children Israel has killed since Oct. 7.

“It’s over 25,000,” Austin testified on Thursday.

After widespread criticism, the Pentagon admitted that Austin used a number that came from Hamas-controlled Gaza health authorities.

“He didn’t actually say they were from the Gaza health ministry. But why was he citing numbers from Gaza’s health ministry?” a reporter asked at the Thursday U.S. Defense Department press briefing.

“We need to clarify,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary. “His answer was citing an estimate from the Hamas-controlled health ministry that more than 25,000 total Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, and—and as—as you know and as you’ve heard us say, we can’t independently verify that these numbers are accurate.”

“We can’t independently verify Gaza casualty figures,” he added.

Later in the press conference, a reporter asked Ryder how the Pentagon calculates numbers like the 25,000 one. “Do you look at all open sources, so you would look at Israel’s estimates on the one hand, and the health ministry from Gaza on the other hand, and you would sort of just cite those figures,” the reporter said. “Or would you make a determination about which one has the most?”

“Again, what I said earlier is I cannot verify the veracity of those figures, and we’re not able to corroborate them and so we don’t have a lot of confidence in, you know, the information,” Ryder said. “Without the ability to be on the ground and independently assess, it’s challenging. And so we do have to rely in large part on open source information that’s out there.”

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Ryder added that the Pentagon is “fairly confident that thousands of civilians have been killed. And one innocent civilian being killed is too many.”

“Why would the secretary cite information he can’t verify?” a reporter asked.

“Again, I’m just highlighting the context of the information and where it came from and what he was citing,” Ryder said.

On Oct. 25, U.S. President Joe Biden said during a White House press conference, “I have no confidence in the number that the Palestinians are using.” But by Feb. 12, Biden said during a press conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan that “too many of the over 27,000 Palestinians killed in this conflict have been innocent civilians and children, including thousands of children.”

The next day, John Kirby, the White House national security communications advisor, did some cleanup on the president’s remarks, as Ryder did on Thursday for the defense secretary.

“The president was referring to publicly available data about the total number of—of casualties,” Kirby said on Feb. 13.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry claimed on Thursday that 30,035 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

On Thursday, Mark Stone, of Sky News, asked Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, about the 25,000 statistic that Austin cited during the State Department press briefing.

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“He said it was 25,000. If the total number is 30,000, that leaves 5,000 men killed. If you assume that all those men are combatants, which is an absurd assumption but some have made that assumption, that means that more than 80% of the people killed since Oct. 7 are civilians,” Stone said. “How is that anything other than a complete disaster and a total failure of American leadership?”

“I have seen the comments by the secretary of defense. I haven’t seen them in full, so I will refer you to the Department of Defense to discuss exactly what he meant,” Miller said. “But I will say whatever the exact number is of civilians that have been killed, it is far too high.”

“Are you suggesting that maybe the defense secretary got it wrong?” Stone asked.

“No, I’m suggesting that for comments about the things the defense secretary said, you should take that up with the spokesperson for the Defense Department,” Miller said.

Stone asked how many Palestinian women and children Miller thinks Israel has killed.

“I don’t have a further estimate to offer,” the State Department spokesman said.