WASHINGTON (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Barack Obama says he takes “full responsibility” for a counterterrorism operation that inadvertently killed an American and an Italian hostage held by al Qaeda.
The president said he profoundly regrets the deaths of the two aid workers, Dr. Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto.
“On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families,” Obama said. “The shining example of these two men will stand as a light to people the world over who see suffering and answer with compassion, who see hatred and offer their love, who see war and work for peace. May God bless these two brave men and may he watch offer and comfort their families for all the years to come.”
Weinstein, an American held by al Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national held by al Qaeda since 2012, were killed in a January drone strike on the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the White House said. The operation targeted an al Qaeda-associated compound and there was no reason to believe either hostage was present at the location, the White House said.
“Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al Qaeda.”
Obama said the mission was “fully consistent” with guidelines for conducting counterterrorism missions in the region.
Although U.S. counterterrorism operations are usually shrouded in secrecy, the president made the decision to declassify the information, CBS2’s Marcia Kramer reported.
“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. “But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Obama said he has ordered a full-scale review of the operation.
“We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy and any changes that should be made,” Obama said. “We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated and we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the loss of innocent lives, not just innocent Americans, but all innocent lives in our counterterrorism operations.”
The U.S. believes that Ahmed Farouq, an American who the White House said was an al Qaeda leader, was killed in the same operation. U.S. officials have also concluded that Adam Gadahn, an American who had served as a spokesman for the terror network, was killed in a separate American operation in January.
Farouq and Gadhan were not specifically targeted in the operations, nor did the U.S. have information indicating their presence at the sites, the White House said.
The president made no mention of Farouq and Gadahn. Instead, he focused his remarks on Weinstein and Lo Porto.
Weinstein, a former professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, was an American humanitarian aid worker who was abducted from his home in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 13, 2011. He reportedly earned a doctorate degree from Columbia University in 1970.
“We are devastated by this news and the knowledge that my husband will never safely return home,” Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, said in a statement Thursday. “We cannot even begin to express the pain our family is going through and we ask for the respect of our privacy as we go through this devastating ordeal.
“We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so, and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through,” she added.
Elaine Weinstein said her husband “loved and respected the Pakistani people and their culture” and blames those who took her husband captive for his death.
“Those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility. I can assure you that he would still be alive and well if they had allowed him to return home after his time abroad working to help the people of Pakistan,” she said. “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 also expressed disappointment in the Pakistani government and military.
“Warren’s safe return should have been a priority for them based on his contributions to their country, but they failed to take action earlier in his captivity when opportunity presented itself, instead treating Warren’s captivity as more of an annoyance than a priority,” she said. “I hope the nature of our future relationship with Pakistan is reflective of how they prioritize situations such as these.”
She thanked several U.S. officials for their efforts to free her husband but said some of the assistance she received from the government was “inconsistent and disappointing.”
“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,” she said.
Weinstein was seen in a prison video in 2012, appearing to beg the president to save him.
“My life is in your hands, Mr. President. If you accept the demands, I live. If you don’t accept the demands, then I die,” Weinstein said in the video.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri had said he would free Weinstein if the president stopped airstrikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, and released all Taliban and al Qaeda suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 plotters, Kramer reported.
“If you respond to them, then I will live and hopefully rejoin my family and also rejoin my children and my two daughters, like you enjoy your two daughters,” Weinstein said in the video.
Weinstein’s capture came four days before his seven-year stint with the U.S. Agency for International Development was to end.
“As a husband and as a father I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today,” the president said. “I know there is nothing that I can ever do or say to ease their heartache.”
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