A U.S. drone strike in January killed two hostages, an Italian and an American, being held by al Qaeda in Pakistan, the White House revealed on Thursday.
"Our hearts go out to the families of Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qa’ida since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national who had been an al-Qa’ida hostage since 2012," read a White House press statement. "Analysis of all available information has led the Intelligence Community to judge with high confidence that the operation accidentally killed both hostages."
According to the statement, the failed counterterrorism operation targeted an al Qaeda-associated compound in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, where authorities said they had "no reason to believe either hostage was present."
The 73-year-old Dr. Weinstein, a resident of Rockville, Md., was a business development expert working on contract for the United States Agency for International Development when he was kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan, the New York Times reports. Mr. Lo Porto was a humanitarian aid worker who had traveled to Pakistan to help rebuild an area hit by flooding.
The White House also revealed that two additional Americans who had joined al Qaeda were also killed in U.S. drone strikes. Ahmed Farouq was killed in the same operation that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto; Adam Gadahn was also killed in January, "likely in a separate U.S. Government counterterrorism operation."
In a televised address on Thursday morning, President Barack Obama said he "takes full responsibility" for the deaths.
"It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and in our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes—sometimes deadly mistakes—can occur," the president 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 added that his office "will do everything we can do to prevent the loss of innocent lives, not just of Americans, but all innocent lives, in our counterterrorism operations."
For years, the White House has rebuffed criticisms of its counterterrorism operations and refused to divulge information about civilians killed in U.S. drone attacks. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2004 and 2015, as many as 960 civilians may have been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, including up to 207 children.
Alka Pradhan, an attorney with the international human rights group Reprieve who represents other civilian victims of drone attacks, noted in a statement that Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto "are far from the first innocents to die by our drones, and in no other case has the US apologized for its mistake."
"The White House is setting a dangerous precedent - that if you are Western and hit by accident we'll say we are sorry, but we'll put up a stone wall of silence if you are a Yemeni or Pakistani civilian who lost an innocent loved one," Pradhan continued. "Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as hypocritical, and do the United States' image real harm."
Critics of the drone program said that the deaths highlight the dangerous fact that drone strikes often rely on faulty intelligence.
"In each of the operations acknowledged today, the U.S. quite literally didn’t know who it was killing," Jameel Jaffer, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, said following the announcement.
Jaffer said that these incidents as well as other strikes in which civilians were killed "make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used."
Calling for increased transparency about U.S. drone operations, Jaffer adds that it would "be easier to assess this gap if the government routinely released information about individual drone strikes."
President Obama's full press statement is available below.