WASHINGTON — An American aid worker and another man held hostage by Al Qaeda were accidentally killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan in January, President Obama said Thursday, underscoring the perils of a long-distance war waged through video screens, joysticks, and sometimes incomplete intelligence.
Intending to wipe out a compound linked to the terrorist group, the CIA authorized the attack without knowing that the hostages were being held there, despite hundreds of hours of surveillance, government officials said. Afterward, they said, the agency did not immediately realize that it had killed an American it had long sought to rescue, with the wrenching news becoming clear only over time.
The violent death of an American at the hands of his own government proved to be a searing moment in a drone war that has come to define the nation’s battle with Al Qaeda since Obama took office.
Shortly after his staff issued a statement announcing the deaths, a visibly upset Obama came to the White House briefing room to make a rare personal apology.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” the president said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
The government is conducting two reviews of the drone strike to determine what went wrong, and the episode could force a broader rethinking of Obama’s approach to fighting Al Qaeda. Under the president’s policy, drone strikes are to be authorized only if there is a “near certainty” that there will not be civilian casualties.
The two hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American kidnapped in 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian seized in 2012, were killed on Jan. 14 in a remote area in Pakistan known as an Al Qaeda sanctuary, officials said. An American affiliated with Al Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, was killed in the same strike. Another American member of Al Qaeda, Adam Gadahn, was killed in a separate strike in that region Jan. 19, according to the officials.
Just as the CIA did not know the hostages were present, it did not know that the American Al Qaeda members were at the targets and they had not been specifically targeted, officials said. Farouq was the deputy of Al Qaeda’s new branch in India and was not publicly identified as an American until Thursday. Gadahn was better known as an Al Qaeda spokesman.
Officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said it took weeks to piece together what happened. Intelligence agencies picked up information soon after the January strikes that Weinstein was dead, but it was not clear how that happened. They pursued theories that he could have died in a US strike, during a Pakistani military operation, or at the hands of his captors.
It took weeks to correlate the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto to the January drone strike, the officials said, and only last week did intelligence officials report to Obama that they had what they called the highest level of confidence. Obama ordered that the episode be declassified but said nothing to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy when he visited the White House last Friday.
Instead, Obama called Renzi on Wednesday to inform him what had happened and also called Weinstein’s wife, Elaine. Aides described it as one of the most painful moments of his presidency.
In a written statement, Weinstein said the family was “devastated” by the news and added that it looked forward to learning more about what happened.
But she said his captors bore responsibility. “The cowardly actions of those who took Warren captive and ultimately to the place and time of his death are not in keeping with Islam, and they will have to face their God to answer for their actions,” she said.
The issue of killing Americans through drone strikes has been an acutely delicate one for Obama, who two years ago announced in a speech at National Defense University that he was beginning to scale back the aerial campaign and restrict it to cases of genuine threat to the United States and its people.
His administration has concluded that the federal government has the right to use deadly force against Americans tied to Al Qaeda if capture is not feasible. In the case of the two Al Qaeda figures killed in January, no legal determination would have been needed because it was not known that they were at the bombed sites.
Some members of Congress criticized the administration or called for more oversight. “Warren Weinstein did not have to die,” said Representative Duncan Hunter, a California Republican. “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.”
Human rights groups that have criticized the Obama administration’s aggressive use of drone strikes said the deaths of the hostages underscored the flaws in the policy.
“Today’s demonstration of transparency is a welcome step, but apology and redress should be available for all civilians killed in US drone strikes, not just Americans and Europeans,” Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA’s program on security and human rights.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the fact that the government did not know that the hostages or US Al Qaeda figures were present showed the problems in the drone war.
“These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used,” he said.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, rejected Hunter’s criticism, saying there was no evidence that the strikes deviated from normal practice. He added that the families would receive financial compensation.
Obama said a full review would identify any changes that should be made to avoid similar errors. “We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated,” Obama said.
Obama did not sign off on this specific strike, aides said, because he has authorized the CIA and military to carry out drone attacks without further consultation if they fit certain criteria. Obama said the operation was conducted “fully consistent with the guidelines” for such missions.
“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,” he said.
Even though Obama announced that the two counterterrorism operations had been declassified, there were limits to the White House’s transparency. Obama did not say that the CIA had carried out the strikes, or even that they involved drones, nor did he say that they occurred in Pakistan.
Under the terms of a secret arrangement brokered in 2004, the CIA was allowed to conduct lethal strikes inside the tribal areas of Pakistan, but neither the US nor the Pakistani government could acknowledge their existence.
The pace of drone operations in Pakistan has declined sharply in recent years. But even as the US military withdraws from Afghanistan, the CIA has pushed to keep several of its bases in that country open so operatives can run missions across the border in order to gather intelligence for drone strikes.
Weinstein, 73, a resident of Rockville, Md., was a business development expert working on contract for the US Agency for International Development when he was kidnapped in August 2011 in Lahore, Pakistan, just four days before he was scheduled to return to the United States.
Al Qaeda had released videos of Weinstein, and news reports as recently as last week indicated that he was assumed to be alive.
Lo Porto was a humanitarian aid worker in Pakistan and disappeared in January 2012. Italy’s foreign minister said this year that the government was working to secure the release of Lo Porto and an Italian who has been missing in Syria.
He studied at London Metropolitan University and worked on projects in the Central African Republic and Haiti before traveling to Pakistan to help rebuild an area hit by flooding, according to news media reports. Shortly after arriving, he and a German colleague were abducted. US officials said they do not know where the German is now but expressed confidence he was not at the compound where Lo Porto died.
Farouq had been named deputy leader of Al Qaeda’s South Asia faction, known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. An Al Qaeda spokesman told reporters in Pakistan in a statement released this month that Farouq had been killed in a drone strike in Shawal, a thickly forested mountainous valley that spans the border between North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal districts and a longstanding Al Qaeda sanctuary.
Gadahn, who was killed separately, was one of the better known Americans tied to Al Qaeda. He grew up in Southern California, converted to Islam at 17 and was said to have left the US in the late 1990s during a period when he was questioning his family’s religious beliefs and the US political system.
He was indicted on treason charges in 2006 for appearing in Al Qaeda propaganda videos calling for attacks on US targets, the first American charged with that in decades. He filmed a 2011 video urging Muslims in the West to carry out terrorist strikes, specifically citing loopholes in American gun laws.
“You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card,” he said in the video. “So what are you waiting for?”