Botched U.S. Strike Highlights Risks of Obama’s Drone War
Obama has taken personal responsibility for the strike that killed an American development expert and an Italian aid worker. But the apology raises more questions than it answers.
The errant U.S. drone strike that claimed the lives of an American and an Italian hostage being held by al Qaeda in Pakistan offer a somber reminder of the risks inherent in the administration’s aggressive shadow war against militants around the globe — and will force the White House to answer tough questions about how the nation’s intelligence agencies so badly botched a mission meant to kill dangerous militants.
The failed operation targeted an al Qaeda compound that had been under intense surveillance by U.S. spies who were unaware that the two Western hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American development expert, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker, were also being kept there. The White House, disclosing the incident for the first time Thursday, called it a “terrible tragedy.”
In addition to the hostages’ deaths, the White House also announced that Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen who had become a prominent spokesperson and propagandist for al Qaeda, was killed in a separate operation. Also killed in the strike that left Weinstein and Lo Porto dead was al Qaeda fighter Ahmed Farouq, another American.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, President Barack Obama said that the United States had conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance of the compound and believed that it belonged to al Qaeda, was free of any civilians, and housed senior militants whose capture was impossible. Despite those extensive intelligence-gathering efforts, American counterterrorism personnel failed to realize that two Western captives were also being detained inside the compound. When drone-fired missiles smashed into it, the two men — aid workers who had risked their lives to try to help Pakistani citizens — were killed.
Obama assumed responsibility for the botched operation and offered his condolences to the families of the two dead men in unusually personal terms. “I realize that there are no words that can ever equal their loss. I know that there is nothing that I can ever say or do to ease their heartache,” Obama said. “Today, I simply want to say this: As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
It’s far from clear that the president’s soothing words will tamp down the Weinstein family’s anger over the way the case was handled from the day of the aid worker’s kidnapping in August 2011 until his death, which they learned about for the first time Wednesday. In a statement, Weinstein’s widow, Elaine, specifically thanked Maryland Rep. John Delaney; the state’s two senators, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin; and specific, but unnamed, officials from the FBI. Her comments about the rest of the government — and, by implication, the administration — took a very different tone.
“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 wrote. “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.”
Elaine Weinstein’s criticism echoes that of the families of the three American hostages who died over the past year after being kidnapped by the Islamic State. The parents of journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley, two journalists beheaded by the militants, and Kayla Mueller, who the Islamic State said was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, have accused the White House of failing to act aggressively enough to bring back their loved ones. The families have described struggling to navigate a convoluted bureaucracy that left them without a single point of contact to brief them on efforts to secure the hostages’ release.
Several of the families have criticized the U.S. refusal to pay ransoms to bring their loved ones back. European countries have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in ransoms to al Qaeda-affiliated groups, but the United States has refused to do so, saying that such a move would violate long-standing U.S. policies toward negotiating with, or appearing to reward, terrorist groups that kidnap Americans.
The administration has said that it is conducting a full review of those policies but has offered no sense of when the findings will be released or whether any specific elements are likely to change.
In his remarks at the White House, Obama said he has ordered a full investigation into the failed strike, but added that he believed it was both legal and conducted according to the administration’s own internal guidelines for mounting lethal operations abroad. The president took no questions from the press, but he will almost certainly face tough ones in coming days from lawmakers of both parties. Among the key points still to be addressed: who were the specific targets of the strike, when the White House first learned the two hostages had been killed, and how much time elapsed before that news was conveyed to the families of the two dead men. The White House is also already beginning to face renewed criticism over its broader drone policies, which many critics — including some leading Democrats — believe to be too opaque and secretive.
Western hostages have died during botched U.S. missions before, but a notable difference in this case is that Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed by an errant strike, not in a rescue mission gone awry. In December 2014, American journalist Luke Somers and South African aid worker Pierre Korkie died in Yemen when troops from SEAL Team 6 stormed a militant compound in an effort to get them out. In December 2010, a similar SEAL raid in Afghanistan resulted in the death of British aid worker Linda Norgrove. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the families of both hostages will receive compensation from the U.S. government.
Weinstein, Farouq, and Gadahn are the fifth, sixth, and seventh Americans to be killed in U.S. drone strikes, and their deaths are representative of the two sides of the U.S. drone war. On the one hand, the Obama administration has expanded the use of such strikes to eliminate large numbers of al Qaeda fighters, but the use of the weapons has also resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties and strikes against unintended targets. Neither Farouq nor Gadahn was specifically targeted in the operations that resulted in their deaths, according to the White House.
Thursday, April 23’s remarks — both the written statement published by the White House and Obama’s public comments — represent an unprecedented level of transparency and remorse for a drone strike causing civilian casualties. Reports of other deaths from such operations are typically met with silence by U.S. officials. “Today’s demonstration of transparency is a welcome step, but apology and redress should be available for all civilians killed in U.S. drone strikes, not just Americans and Europeans,” Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International’s security and human rights program, said in an emailed statement. “The U.S. government could be just as transparent about the hundreds of other drone strikes it has conducted in Pakistan and Yemen.”
The White House described the strikes that claimed the hostages’ lives as in line with the more stringent drone guidelines Obama has issued that require American forces to establish with near certainty that a strike will not result in civilian casualties. Rights groups have claimed in recent months, however, that those standards have not been fully implemented. In a report published this month, the Open Society Justice Initiative argued that U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have left civilians caught in the crossfire between drones and the al Qaeda fighters being targeted.
Pakistan had long been the center of the administration’s drone war against al Qaeda, but the number of strikes there had been decreasing in recent months as U.S. attention shifted to Somalia, Yemen, and other militant hotbeds. Administration officials have said that the years of drone strikes inside Pakistan had succeeded in eliminating senior al Qaeda leaders there and had devastated the group’s leadership structure. Many outside analysts agree with that assertion but say it is increasingly less relevant because of the spread in other countries of localized al Qaeda franchises that operate independently from what had been the group’s headquarters in Pakistan.
Weinstein had been held by al Qaeda since August 2011, when he was abducted from his home in Lahore, Pakistan. At the time of his capture, he had been working as country director for J.E. Austin Associates, a development consultancy. The militants who held him made frequent reference to Weinstein’s Jewish faith, a fact Obama noted Thursday. Lo Porto was abducted in January 2012 in Pakistan’s Punjab province while participating in aid work.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll