A CIA drone strike in January that was aimed at a suspected al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan accidentally killed two hostages, including a kidnapped American, U.S. officials acknowledged Thursday.
U.S. officials said they did not realize until weeks later that two civilians had died in the attack — kidnapped aid workers Warren Weinstein of Maryland and Giovanni Lo Porto of Italy — despite assurances from the CIA at the time of the operation that only al-Qaeda fighters were present.
The CIA had been conducting surveillance on the site near the Afghan border for hundreds of hours, U.S. officials said.
But the spy agency later discovered the strike had also killed a second U.S. citizen, Ahmed Farouq, who U.S. officials said had joined al-Qaeda years earlier and was among the suspected militants at the compound.
After the CIA slowly pieced together what had happened, the spy agency’s director, John Brennan, delivered the news to President Obama last week. On Thursday, in brief remarks from the White House, a grim and downcast Obama informed the nation of the botched operation.
“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,” Obama said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
Weinstein, 73, had been held since 2011 after being kidnapped in Lahore, Pakistan. Lo Porto, 39. had been in al-Qaeda captivity since 2012.
Obama said he spoke Wednesday with Weinstein’s wife, Elaine, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to inform them.
In a statement, Elaine Weinstein said Thursday that she and her family were “devastated” by the news and “do not yet fully understand all of the facts surrounding Warren’s death.”
“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 said.
Earnest said the families of the two hostages will receive U.S. government compensation, but he declined to provide details.
Obama said that the operation was “fully consistent with the guidelines” he has established for counterterrorism strikes against al-Qaeda but that he has ordered “a full review of what happened.”
“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,” the president added. “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 provided only limited details about the operation. He did not specify how or where the hostages were killed, or which arm of the U.S. government was responsible.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
Two Pakistani intelligence officials, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they believe Weinstein, Lo Porto and Farouq were killed during a Jan. 15 drone strike in the Shawal Valley in North Waziristan, part of Pakistan’s tribal belt.
A statement released earlier this month by al-Qaeda’s media arm also reported that Farouq had been killed on Jan. 15 in the Shawal Valley, but it did not identify the little-known figure as an American or make any mention of the hostages.
The CIA has been conducting drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan for more than a decade under a covert program first authorized by President George W. Bush and substantially expanded by Obama. The strikes have caused widespread public anger in Pakistan for inflicting civilian casualties but have been tolerated by the Pakistani government as part of an unspoken arrangement with the U.S. government.
Although Obama did not mention it in his remarks, another American was killed in a separate counterterrorism operation in January, the White House acknowledged in a statement Thursday.
Adam Gadahn, 36, a California native who converted to Islam and joined al-Qaeda more than a decade ago, was killed in a CIA drone attack in Pakistan within a week of the strike that killed the hostages, U.S. officials said.
Gadahn, who called himself “Azzam the American” and helped run al-Qaeda’s propaganda department, was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2006 on charges of treason.
Read more: The Washington Post