President Barack Obama's administration announced that a US drone strike, which targeted an "al Qaeda-associated compound" in January, killed two hostages in Pakistan. One of the hostages was an American contractor named Dr. Warren Weinstein, the other an Italian named Giovani Lo Porto. Weinstein was a USAID contractor and Lo Porto was an aid worker.
It is a tragedy that once again raises questions about the mostly secret criteria for launching drone strikes. If the government did not know that two hostages were being held in this compound, how much did the government really know about alleged al Qaeda militants the government claims to have killed?
Additionally, Ahmed Farouq, an al Qaeda leader and a US citizen, was killed as well. A separate operation killed Adam Gadahn, an American who became a propagandist for al Qaeda. But, according to a statement released by the White House, "Neither was specifically targeted," and the administration did "not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations."
The same statement claims the Obama administration "had no reason to believe either hostage was present, located in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan." But, whether the government had intelligence or not, it was certainly possible the compound could be used to hide people.
There are two key issues that deserve attention: the Orwellian-sounding phrase that neither Farouq nor Gadahn were specifically targeted, which the administration has employed before to wipe its hands clean of responsibility for the death of Americans, and whether the individuals targeted in the compound posed a continued and imminent threat to justify the drone strike that killed hostages.
As the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer reacted, "These new disclosures raise troubling questions about the reliability of the intelligence that the government is using to justify drone strikes. In each of the operations acknowledged today, the US quite literally didn't know who it was killing."
"These and other recent 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," Jaffer added. "It would of course be easier to assess this gap if the government routinely released information about individual drone strikes. Unfortunately, the president's stated commitment to transparency can't be squared with the secrecy that still shrouds virtually every aspect of the government's drone program."
President Obama previously declared in a speech at the National Defense University in May 2013, "America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured--the highest standard we can set."
Obama stated, "Our initial assessment indicates that this operation was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region." Anywhere from 2,400 to 3,949 people have been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Potentially, over 900 of these deaths were civilians. These deaths are likely a combination of civilians being killed for being wrongly labeled as "associates" of targeted militants and civilians being killed because the US had no idea they were even in the same compound or vehicle attacked.
Because the Obama administration's arguments seeking to justify lethal operations redefine the word "imminence," it is unclear if this really is such a high standard. The administration believe an "operational leader" can present an "'imminent' threat of violent attack against the United States," even if the US has no "clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." This, as Jaffer has said, "redefines the word imminence in a way that deprives the word of its ordinary meaning."
Presuming there was a "senior operational leader" killed (who was not Farouq), the Justice Department's perspective on drone strikes against such individuals includes the following:
...where the al Qaeda member in question has recently been involved in activities posing an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, and there is no evidence suggesting that he has renounced or abandoned such activities, that member's involvement in al Qaeda's continuing terrorist campaign against the United States would support the conclusion that the member poses an imminent threat...
This argument makes the word "imminent" more meaningless. If applied to the announced operation that killed Weinstein, Lo Porto, Farouq, it suggests the operation could very well have killed anybody engaged in warfare in Pakistan. The person targeted may not have even been a part of al Qaeda. The person could just be part of a militia with interests that sometimes align with al Qaeda, depending on how aggressive the Pakistan military happens to be that month.
What "threat" was thwarted by this attack? Who exactly was killed? No one knows because Obama and the White House, in general, refused to give more details than "the operation did take out dangerous members of al Qaeda."
The statement that "dangerous members of al Qaeda" were taken out is really a useless statement because, of course, all members of al Qaeda can be considered "dangerous" people just as the members of an organized crime ring can easily be referred to as "dangerous" too. It tells the public nothing about who or what was saved by an operation that occurred around three months ago.
Now, as for the two Americans that were not "specifically targeted," Farouq had become the leader of al Qaeda's Indian branch. He was a senior al Qaeda leader and probably would have met the administration's still mostly secret criteria for targeted assassination.
Gadahn was a well-known mouthpiece for al Qaeda. According to the Los Angeles Times, a federal grand jury in Orange County indicted him on charges of providing material support to al Qaeda after he appeared in a 2004 video. He was charged with treason, on the FBI's most wanted terrorists list and the government offered a $1 million reward for information that would lead to his arrest. But, like Samir Khan, an American who was killed in the same drone strike in September 2011 that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, Gadahn was not "specifically targeted."
Not to dismiss the backgrounds of either of these two individuals and their involvement with a terrorist organization, but categorizing their deaths in this manner quickly absolves the administration of responsibility. Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar's 16-year-old son, was killed weeks later in Yemen and Attorney General Eric Holder later claimed he was "not specifically targeted." Evidence to the contrary existed, but just like that the administration could move onward with business as usual and not have to worry about killing an American.
Altogether, the announcement is a reminder of everything that is wrong about the power the Obama administration has claimed to assassinate people with drones. The government does not know who it is killing but claims they are dangerous and thus pose an automatic "imminent threat" to Americans. It does not know ahead of time if compounds attacked have hostages or innocent civilians until after deaths are reported. And, because the administration claims the extraordinary power to extrajudicially assassinate an American involved with terrorism if it does not want to capture that person, the administration says next to nothing about American terrorists if they happen to be killed in drone strikes. (Obama did not even mention Farouq or Gadahn in his remarks.)
At least there was an acknowledgment of these deaths from the Obama administration. At least Obama apologized for killing hostages. Alka Pradhan, a US attorney for the human rights organization, Reprieve, noted, "Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto are far from the first innocents to die by [US] 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 a Westerner 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. Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as hypocritical and do the United States' image real harm."
Obama laughably contended, "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."
The caveat is that what the world sees as "imperfections," inconsistencies or criminal acts the administration often defends as features of a carefully calibrated counter-terrorism program.