Obama Takes Full Responsibility For Death Of Hostages In U.S. Strike

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The White House disclosed that two hostages, including an American citizen, were killed during a U.S. counterterrorism operation against al-Qaida. It said that two al-Qaida leaders were also killed.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We learned today that a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan accidentally killed two Western hostages - one, American, the other, Italian. It happened in January. President Obama says the U.S. counterterrorism operation was aimed at a suspected al-Qaida compound. The president said no one in the U.S. government had been aware that the hostages were being held there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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.

SIEGEL: Two Americans who were known members of al-Qaida were also killed in that drone strike and another nearby - more on that in a moment. First, here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The two hostages were both aid workers - an American, Warren Weinstein, who had been held captive by al-Qaida for more than three and a half years, and an Italian, Giovanni La Porto, who was taken prisoner in 2012. While the drone strike that killed the two happened in January, it was only a few days ago that U.S. intelligence confirmed what had happened. President Obama says he telephoned the Italian prime minister and Weinstein's widow, Elaine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: Obama says he's ordered a full review in hopes of preventing similar accidents in the future. But he says so far it appears this operation was carried out in accordance with U.S. policies. There were hundreds of hours of surveillance of the suspected al-Qaida compound, including near continuous surveillance in the days leading up to the drone strike. There was no indication hostages were being held there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: We believed that this was an al-Qaida compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible. And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida.

HORSLEY: The same strike is thought to have killed an American al-Qaida leader, Ahmed Farouq, while a second strike in the same area killed Adam Gadahn, an American-born propagandist for the terrorist group. There are strict legal procedures the U.S. is supposed to follow before killing an American terror suspect. But the White House says those didn't come into play here because neither Farouq nor Gadahn was specifically targeted. Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU says there's something worrisome about launching deadly drone strikes with so little information about who's on the other end.

JAMEEL JAFFER: I would say it raises troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence the government is using to justify these kinds of strikes and the depth of that intelligence. You know, in each of these operations, the government literally didn't know who it was killing.

HORSLEY: the White House says the U.S. will pay compensation to the families of the two hostages who were killed. Elaine Weinstein issued a statement today praising the FBI officials who tried in vain to rescue her husband. She complained help from the rest of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing, though she added, her husband's al-Qaida captors bear ultimate responsibility for his death. Tragic as this accident was, a White House spokesman defended the use of drone strikes today, saying the U.S. cannot rely on manned raids like the one that killed Osama bin Laden to go after every suspected al-Qaida compound. Daniel Rothenberg of the New America Foundation's Future of War program agrees. But he suggests the government needs to be more transparent about the ultimate purpose of these kinds of action.

DANIEL ROTHENBERG: In some ways, the real question is what sort of war are Americans willing to accept? If there's clarity as to the core national security interests that are being protected, then I think there's probably greater willingness to accept the devastation that is war.

HORSLEY: President Obama said almost nothing today about the two al-Qaida members who were killed. Instead, he lavished praise on the innocent aid workers, calling them a shining example to those who see war and work for peace. Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.