The revelation that two Western hostages died in a U.S. counter-terrorism operation in Pakistan early this year is shocking. It will, and should, revive the largely dormant debate about the drone attacks on Al Qaeda figures and other militants.
In the meantime, President Obama needs to be forthcoming — to the public, and not just to Congress in classified briefings — about the justification for the attack on a suspected Al Qaeda compound in January that killed Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian. Both were aid workers.
The White House also said that Al Qaeda leader Ahmed Farouq, a U.S. citizen, was killed in the January attack and that another American, Al Qaeda propagandist Adam Gadahn, died in a separate operation about the same time. Neither was specifically targeted, the administration said, and their presence at the sites wasn't known about in advance — another seeming indictment of U.S. intelligence.
It's not enough for Obama to invoke the “fog of war” as an explanation for the hostages' deaths. Without compromising sources and methods, the administration must explain not only why this strike was necessary but why those who planned the operation were confident that no hostages or other innocents were at the scene. (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the compound was subject to “near-continuous” surveillance in the days before the operation, and he referred to unspecified other intelligence.)
Looking forward, the administration should follow the advice of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and release annual reports on the number of deaths — both combatant and civilian — from U.S. strikes. Tallies by the New America Foundation, based on media reports, indicate that the number of drone strikes in Pakistan have declined significantly to 22 last year from a high point of 122 in 2010. There also has been a welcome decline in the number of civilian deaths. Beyond the tragic loss of innocent life, civilian casualties inflame anti-American sentiment and create sympathy for militants.
As the administration prepares for a further drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, it seems determined to preserve the option of drone strikes. If the U.S. is going to wage this sort of war, it needs to be scrupulous in ensuring that attacks are absolutely necessary and based on air-tight intelligence, and that mistakes are minimized.
In offering his apologies, Obama referred to “the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today.” The same pain afflicts the relatives of Pakistani civilians who have died in drone strikes. For all their remoteness and technological sophistication, armed drones are deadly weapons of war. They must be wielded carefully.