President Obama was forced to concede Thursday that the U.S. killed two innocent hostages, including an American, in a drone strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan in January, raising fresh questions about the administration’s drone policy and its efforts to rescue captives held by terrorists.
Mr. Obama said he took full responsibility for the operation and apologized to the families of the hostages.
“I profoundly regret what happened,” the president said at the White House. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that, in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.”
The two hostages were Warren Weinstein, an aid worker from Rockville, Maryland, who was a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. The terrorist group kidnapped both men in Pakistan — Mr. Weinstein in 2011 and Mr. Lo Porto in 2012.
The drone strike in January also killed Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al Qaeda leader. Another al Qaeda member who was a U.S. citizen, Adam Gadahn, was killed in a different U.S. counterterrorism operation in the same region, the White House said. Neither of the al Qaeda members was specifically targeted, administration officials said, and their presence at the locations was not known at the time.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting the administration in court to learn more details of the targeted killing program, said the revelations show that the U.S. “quite literally didn’t know who it was killing.”
“These new disclosures raise troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence that the government is using to justify drone strikes,” said Jameel Jaffer, the group’s deputy legal director. “There is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and vice chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the panel already had been reviewing the January counterterrorism strike.
“I now intend to review that operation in greater detail,” she said in a statement. “We should also again review all procedures and safeguards to make sure every measure is taken to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians.”
Mr. Obama said the operation was “fully consistent” with U.S. guidelines for counterterrorism strikes in the region, including the rule that there must be a “near certainty” civilians won’t be killed. He said intelligence agencies had the compound under surveillance for hundreds of hours, and that it was under nearly continuous surveillance in the days leading up to the strike.
“We believed that this was an al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present, and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Mr. Obama said. “What we did not know, tragically, is that al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
The president, whom aides said was personally pained by the episode, called Mr. Weinstein’s widow and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday to express condolences.
Mr. Weinstein’s family issued a scathing statement Thursday on a website devoted to his return, saying they are crushed by the news that an American operation killed him.
“On behalf of myself, our two daughters, our son-in-law, and two grandchildren, we are devastated by this news and the knowledge that my husband will never safely return home,” wrote Elaine Weinstein, his wife. “We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so, and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through.”
She said the family does not yet understand all the facts surrounding her husband’s death and criticized the Obama administration.
“Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years,” she said. “We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
The U.S. will compensate the families of both hostages who were killed, said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. He didn’t specify an amount.
Al Qaeda said previously in a message addressed to Mr. Weinstein’s family that it was “not interested in keeping” him, but wanted to exchange him for prisoners in U.S. custody. The U.S. has a policy of not paying ransom for hostages, but last year the administration did swap five top Taliban commanders being held at the Guantanamo detention center for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who has since been charged with deserting his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the bungled counterterrorism operation that killed Mr. Weinstein highlights a lack of coordination among federal agencies involved in hostage rescues, including the FBI.
“Warren Weinstein did not have to die,” Mr. Hunter said in a statement. “His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity — and the fact that he’s dead, as a result, is absolutely tragic.”
Mr. Hunter said the FBI was the “lead organization” in attempts to recover Mr. Weinstein, but he said the agency is “incapable of leading these efforts in hostile areas.”
He said the only government organization “seriously developing options” in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region was at the Pentagon, with a team that had plans to recover seven Western hostages, including Mr. Weinstein and Sgt. Bergdahl. But because of “infighting and disagreements” in the administration, the Pentagon team was “ultimately sidelined,” Mr. Hunter said.
The lawmaker said the Pentagon effort was led by Army Special Forces Lt. Col Jason Amerine, a veteran of combat in Afghanistan.
“In the lead-up to the Bergdahl trade, Amerine and his team were developing plans to recover all Western hostages in the area — not just Bergdahl alone,” Mr. Hunter said. “Their planning did not include a 5-for-1 trade, as occurred, but rather a 1-for-7 exchange that included Weinstein.”
Mr. Hunter said interagency fighting between the FBI and CIA doomed those efforts.
“Due to infighting and disagreements among lead organizations, Amerine and his team struggled to get attention beyond the walls of the Pentagon and were ultimately sidelined,” he said. “And when the State Department-led 5-for-1 trade was initiated, the deck was reshuffled for all the other Americans in captivity in the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. This is just one more failure in a string of failures related to the administration’s decisions and efforts related to Bergdahl’s release.”
Mr. Earnest said the U.S. “went to great lengths to try to rescue Dr. Weinstein.”
“There were significant resources dedicated to trying to determine his whereabouts,” he said.
The White House wouldn’t reveal the precise location or date of the drone strike, nor even confirm that the operation was a drone strike. But Mr. Earnest repeated the president’s guidelines from a speech at the National Defense University in 2013 that drone use should be limited, deploying them mainly in remote areas where it’s highly risky to put troops on the ground.
Mr. Obama said he ordered that the information about the hostages’ deaths be declassified “because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth.”
A somber Mr. Obama said that although the mistake was a tragedy, “one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
“Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy and any changes that should be made,” he said. “We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated, and we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the loss of innocent lives, not just innocent Americans but all innocent lives, in our counterterrorism operations.”
After the strike in January, U.S. intelligence officials followed the operation with a “battle-damage assessment,” using multiple intelligence sources to determine the results and learn whether there were any civilian casualties. Within a few weeks, Mr. Earnest said, U.S. officials began to get indications that Mr. Weinstein might have been killed.
But only in the last several days were they able to confirm that assessment with a “high degree of confidence.” Officials briefed Mr. Obama, who then told his national security team to declassify some of the information.