Deaths of American Hostages in U.S. Drone Strike Raises Wider Questions About Civilian Impact


After weeks of aerial surveillance, CIA analysts reached two conclusions about a compound to be targeted in a January drone strike: that it was used by al-Qaeda militants, and, in the moment before it was hit, that it had exactly four occupants.

But as six bodies were removed from the rubble, the drone feeds that continued streaming back to CIA headquarters carried with them a new set of troubling questions, including who the other two victims were, and how the agency’s pre-strike assessments could have been so flawed.

In his grim statement on Thursday, President Obama described the deaths of two Western hostages held by al-Qaeda as unfortunate but not necessarily negligent. He cited the “fog of war” and said that preliminary assessments indicate the strike “was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts.”

But current and former U.S. counterterrorism officials said that Thursday’s disclosures undercut years of U.S. claims about the accuracy of the drone program and provided new ammunition for skeptics of administration policies that are supposed to require “near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed.

Despite Obama’s equanimity in public, officials said that his reaction behind closed doors was considerably harsher. Obama’s advisers have for years told him that “this would never happen, and now it did,” said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is going to be a big deal.”

The disclosures Thursday went beyond the deaths of the two hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian who was kidnapped in 2012.

The administration also revealed that Weinstein was one of three Americans killed in a pair of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in January.

The others, Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn, were members of al-Qaeda. Even so, the CIA appears not to have known that the two men were present at the sites it targeted. As a result, they were killed in operations that didn’t adhere to rules that Obama imposed that are supposed to require a Justice Department review and other measures before Americans are targeted in counterterrorism operations overseas.

Their deaths, while not deemed civilian casualties, add to an increasingly dismal set of statistics on U.S. citizens. Since 2002, at least eight Americans have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Only one —Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric later accused of serving as a senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen — was targeted intentionally.

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SOURCE: Greg Miller 
The Washington Post

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