Drone strike kills two hostages. Time to rethink remote warfare?

A US drone strike inadvertently killed American and Italian hostages during a counterterror operation in January, the White House said Thursday.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama delivers a statement on the deaths of hostages during US counterterrorism operations, from the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Thursday.

In an extraordinary admission on Thursday, the White House announced that two Al Qaeda hostages – American development specialist Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto – were killed in a US counterterrorism operation in January.

The official statement didn’t use the phrase “drone strike,” as the details of the extensive US use of remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) to track and attack terror suspects remain classified. But in unattributed remarks, American officials said an armed drone had attacked an Al Qaeda compound near the Pakistani-Afghan border where US intelligence believed no hostages were present.

The drone’s missiles killed members of Al Qaeda, including an American leader of the group, Ahmed Farouq, according to US sources. (Al Qaeda member and US citizen Adam Gadahn was killed in the same region at the same general time, but may have been struck in another attack.)

But US intelligence had missed the presence of hostages, despite hundreds of hours of surveillance. The US announcement of the deaths of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto came after American officials confirmed the incident.

“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,” President Obama said in a statement. “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.”

Will that learning process lead to a reduction in America's reliance on drone warfare? That’s one of the questions raised by the unusually public nature of this admission.

The US use of armed RPVs is bitterly resented in Pakistan and other areas where the press of a button brings sudden missiles from on high. In part, that is due to the loss of sovereignty that the eyes in the sky represent. In part, it is due to the collateral damage from the strikes suffered by ordinary Pakistanis, Yemenis, and so forth.

The deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto were similarly unintended, yet tragic.

“It is really time for robust oversight of the drone program *AND* public accountability,” tweeted left-leaning Mother Jones writer David Corn in the wake of the White House announcement.

Yet the drone strikes are more targeted than some alternatives. They lead to less collateral damage than, say, large numbers of heavily armed troops. While they are not perfect, no method of warfare is.

And it is those who took Weinstein and Lo Porto hostage who bear the chief responsibility for their deaths, said Weinstein’s wife, Elaine Weinstein, in a statement released Thursday.

“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 said.

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