Deaths of 2 Western hostages won't end U.S. drone strikes

American, Italian hostages accidentally killed in U.S. counter-terrorism operation, White House says

A fiery barrage of missiles from CIA drones inadvertently killed two Western hostages, including an American, during an attack on a suspected Al Qaeda hide-out in northwestern Pakistan, but U.S. officials said Thursday that they won’t stop using drones to target and kill terrorists.

The deaths in January of Warren Weinstein, a rural development expert from suburban Maryland, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker, mark the first known case where a U.S. drone has killed foreign hostages, although some have been killed by their captors during U.S. commando raids.

The White House, the CIA’s inspector general, and the Senate and House Intelligence committees will review the intelligence failure to try to determine what went wrong, officials said. President Obama offered a somber apology for the error.

“I take full responsibility for all our counter-terrorism operations,” Obama said Thursday at the White House. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to their families.”

Officials said CIA drones launched a flurry of missiles at a guarded compound in the Shawal Valley, in Pakistan’s remote tribal belt, on Jan. 14 after hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance, as well as communications intercepts and other intelligence, had convinced officials that a senior Al Qaeda figure and his aides were holed up there.

Although the CIA did not know his identify, or that of anyone else in the buildings, U.S. officials “had no reason to believe either hostage was present,” the White House said in a statement.

Officials later determined the senior Al Qaeda figure killed was another American: Ahmed Farouq, who also has Pakistani citizenship. Farouq led Al Qaeda in South Asia, a recently formed group that tried to hijack Pakistani naval vessels in September to attack U.S. ships. He and three senior operatives were killed in the drone strike.

A third American, Adam Gadahn, who served as an English-speaking spokesman for Al Qaeda, was inadvertently killed five days later in a drone strike in the same region. Gadahn, an Orange County native, was indicted by a federal grand jury in California in 2006 on charges of treason.

Had the CIA known that it was tracking and targeting a U.S. citizen in either case, additional legal hurdles would have kicked in that are required when an American combatant is to be killed, including the personal approval of the president. U.S. officials insisted Thursday that the CIA didn’t know who it was killing in either attack, and that Obama was not asked to approve them.

Still, the deaths of the hostages underscore the limits of U.S. intelligence, and the risks of using remote-controlled drones to kill groups of unidentified people.

“It is a cruel and bitter truth that, in the fog of war generally and in our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur,” Obama said. What “sets America apart, what makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes,” he said.

Weinstein, a 73-year-old grandfather from Rockville, Md., was promoting farm and dairy development in Pakistan as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was abducted from a residence in Lahore in 2011. He was a former Peace Corps manager in West Africa and cofounder of a human rights journal.

His wife, Elaine, and two daughters, who had led a desperate campaign for his release, said in a statement Thursday that no words “do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through.”

Elaine Weinstein called his captors “cowardly” but also said she hopes his death “will finally prompt the U.S. government to … establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.” She also lashed out at Pakistan’s government for failing to do more to save her husband.

The White House said Obama has ordered an evaluation of how the government communicates with families of hostages held overseas. Al Qaeda holds “a small number” of U.S. and Western hostages, an official said, but declined to provide details.

The hostages’ deaths highlight a troubling aspect of post-Sept. 11, 2001, counter-terrorism operations. Although U.S. officials have repeatedly denied charges by human rights groups and others that drone strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, the attacks have killed nine Americans since 2002.

Only one, Anwar Awlaki, a Muslim cleric born in New Mexico who helped plan operations for Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen and was killed in 2011, had been approved by the White House as a legitimate target. The others were all unintended victims.

In May 2013, Obama announced new guidelines meant to limit so-called signature strikes against massed groups of men believed to be fighters, but whose identities were unknown. Critics said those attacks caused too many civilian casualties and were a prime source of friction with Pakistan.

Under the new standards, U.S. authorities must determine with “near certainty” before launching a missile that civilians will not be injured or killed. The CIA, however, has continued to launch drone attacks, like the two in January, based on intelligence indicating that terrorists are present, but without proof of who they are.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, defended the use of drone strikes and said the deaths of the hostages would not change U.S. counter-terrorism policy.

“We know that it has made these Al Qaeda leaders intensely focused on their own personal safety in a way that detracts from their ability to plan and plot against the United States,” he said.

Because few Western hostages are being held in northwestern Pakistan, the deaths probably “won’t have an impact on counter-terrorism operations,” Robert L. Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan, said in a telephone interview.

If the CIA knew of numerous other hostages there, “that might give us pause — that would have to be factored into the equation,” he said.

Soon after the Jan. 14 strike, U.S. intelligence officials received the first indications that the two hostages may have been killed, but it was unclear how. The Weinstein family was told around that time that he might be dead, but drone strikes were not mentioned.

More intelligence came in early April, and the CIA made a firm assessment that Weinstein and Lo Porto were dead. Obama was told late last week, before his meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. But Obama didn’t inform him because the mission was still being declassified, the family had not been notified, and the intelligence community was not ready to go public with the information.

Obama called Weinstein’s widow and Renzi on Wednesday to express his condolences.

CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are covert under the law, and the administration referred Thursday only to counter-terrorism operations, not a drone strike.

Members of Congress blamed Al Qaeda for putting the hostages in harm’s way, and did not call for reforms in U.S. policy.

“I wouldn’t leap to any conclusion that this tragedy will result in a policy change,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. That will “really depend on whether there were flaws in the operation or whether standards were met,” he said.

Schiff said he was briefed at the end of last week on the hostages’ deaths.

“The intelligence was tragically incomplete,” he said. “Notwithstanding a great many hours of surveillance — and sustained surveillance — those conducting the operation were not aware the hostages were there.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she has been reviewing the drone strikes and plans to go over them “in greater detail” to see whether more safeguards are needed “to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians.”

Feinstein has helped the CIA fight some lawmakers’ efforts to move the drone program, and targeted killings, to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which conducts clandestine commando operations.

She argued that the CIA has developed the expertise required to run the drone program. That position could be tested by the agency’s failure to determine the presence of two hostages in the compound, however.

The errors also could bolster an effort by Feinstein and other lawmakers to require the U.S. intelligence community to release an annual report on the number of civilian and combatant deaths from drone strikes.

Republican lawmakers largely shared the president's expression of regret and supported an independent review.

“This is not a time for excuses,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “We need all the facts, for the families and so that we can make sure that nothing like this ever happens again in our efforts to keep Americans safe.”

Sen. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Americans should remember that Al Qaeda “is merciless in their capture and continued detainment of hostages who have selflessly sought to serve others, and they bear the ultimate responsibility for these deaths.”

Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), who grew close to the Weinstein family during their ordeal, called the contractor’s death a “sobering national security and government failure.”

In an interview, he said he believed that U.S. officials did all they could to confirm no civilians would be killed but that it was “hard to say” that they met the “near certainty” standard. He said his focus now is to ensure the U.S. does all it can to identify and help find hostages.

“For the people who do this every day for a living in the government, who are really talented and hardworking, I think they work within a bureaucracy and they're not always in a position where they can leverage all the resources the government has to get what they need done to find these hostages,” he said.

Twitter: @ByBrianBennett

Twitter: @MikeMemoli

Times staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6 p.m.: This article has been updated with more comments and background information.

1:08 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from White House spokesman Josh Earnest and to remove outdated information.

10:54 a.m.: This article has been updated with details from U.S. officials and comment from U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas.

9:54 a.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from the Weinstein family.

7:45 a.m.: This article has been updated with comments from President Obama and background on his counter-terrorism strategy.

This article was originally published at 6:53 a.m.

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