Family of U.S. Hostage Killed in Botched Strike Blasts the White House
Aid worker Warren Weinstein’s family says the Obama administration is balking at the price tag under a law the president signed to compensate families of American hostages.
The family of an American aid worker who was taken hostage by al Qaeda and later killed in a botched U.S. counterterrorism operation says the Obama administration is refusing to follow a law passed to provide compensation for relatives of hostages because it views the price tag in his case as too high.
That law, tucked into the behemoth spending bill President Barack Obama signed in December, stipulated up to $10,000 dollars per day of captivity for the Americans taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Iran in 1979. Warren Weinstein, an aid worker in Pakistan who was abducted by al Qaeda in 2011, was held for 1,251 days before he was killed by an errant U.S. airstrike in January of last year, which means his family would theoretically be eligible for up to $12,510,000.
“They say that it’s different,” the family’s attorney, John Brownlee, told Foreign Policy in an interview Friday. “What’s different is that all the Iranian hostages came home safely, and what’s different here is that Dr. Weinstein was killed, and despite that, they refuse to follow what our view is the law.”
While declining to discuss how much money was offered by the White House, Brownlee added, “Set aside the killing by a U.S. counterterrorism strike — just the captivity alone, they won’t even recognize.”
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price acknowledged that when Obama announced Weinstein’s death in April 2015, the administration said it would provide an unspecified “condolence payment.”
“We did so knowing that no dollar figure could ever bring back their loved ones,” Price told Foreign Policy in a statement. “Out of respect for the privacy of these families — and because this is an ongoing process — we have no further details to share at this time.”
Obama himself took to the podium in the White House briefing room last April to personally apologize for U.S. forces accidentally killing Weinstein and Lo Porto, months before.
“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,” he said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
At the time, Obama said he and U.S. officials had been near certain that no civilians were present when the decision was made to strike an al Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in January of 2015.
“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,” Obama said in his April announcement, adding he had ordered a full review and pledging any necessary changes would be made. But what sets the U.S. apart, he said, “is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
The administration has come under heavy criticism for its increasing reliance on both drone strikes against specific targets and also so-called signature strikes, which involves using lethal force even when Washington doesn’t know the identities of who they are killing.
But the White House has defended the policy as preferable to putting U.S. troops on the ground in combat in places like Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The Pentagon recently announced it has relaxed certain rules around such airstrikes to ramp up the pace of the U.S-led air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Families of other Americans taken hostage by ISIS and other terror groups have also been highly critical of the Obama White House’s response.
Weinstein’s family said in its statement Friday that they were “frustrated and saddened” by Obama administration officials not meeting promises of compensation “which would help us to move on by concluding our interactions with the federal government over this matter.”
“Every day that they drag their feet and refuse to provide us with the sense of closure that we so badly need only furthers the pain that we feel and worsens the ordeal that they have put us through,” the family said.
Asked for a response to the family’s claims, NSC spokeswoman Emily Horne initially directed Foreign Policy to statements from White House spokesman Josh Earnest in January, some three months prior, in which he said the case had enabled the government to “develop some better tools to more effectively engage with families who are in this tragic situation,” noting reforms announced this past summer, including a central hostage response group under the NSC.
But according to the Weinstein family, this engagement has not improved. “It was our hope that changes would be made to their policies so that no family would ever have to experience a loss like we have,” the family said, “and it is our hope now that no family will ever have to deal with the ongoing lack of resolution with which we have been presented.”
Brownlee said that to his knowledge, no White House official has ever spoken to Weinstein’s widow or the family about the reforms.
“This isn’t what the family asked for, this is what the president the United States said he would do. They’ve never demanded compensation,” he said, adding that Obama’s message in April doesn’t seemed to have translated to his CIA, chief of staff or counselor’s office. “All we’re asking is that they do what president telling them to do.”
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN / Staff