President Obama apologized today to the families of an American and Italian hostage who were accidently killed in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaida forces in January.
The two hostages were Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaida since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national held by al-Qaida since 2012.
"We believe that a U.S. counterterrorism operation targeting an al-Qaida compound in the Afghanistan Pakistan border region accidently killed Warren and Giovanni this past January," Obama said in a Thursday morning speech.
"As a husband and as a father, I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are experiencing today. I realize that there are no words that can ever equal their loss. I know that there is nothing that I can ever do or say to ease their heartache.
"Today I simply want to say this -- 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. I profoundly regret what happened."
Obama described Warren and Giovanni as "two humanitarians that came from different countries but were united by a spirit of service." Both men had been aid workers in Pakistan.
U.S. officials had worked "tirelessly" to find Warren and bring him home, while also working with Italian officials to do the same for Giovanni, Obama said.
Obama said that intelligence indicated that "this was an al-Qaida compound that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible."
"We do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida," Obama said.
The U.S. believes that Ahmed Farouq, an American who the White House says was an al-Qaida 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.
The White House says Farouq and Gadhan were not specifically targeted in the operations, nor did the U.S. have information indicating their presence at the sites.
"What we did not know tragically was that al-Qaida was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in the same compound," Obama said. "It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against al-Qaida, specifically, mistakes – sometimes deadly mistakes – can occur."
Obama made a point to say that he ordered the operation declassified as soon as U.S. officials determined that the two hostages died in the strike.
"I did so because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserved to know the truth," Obama said. "And I did so because even as certain aspects of our national security efforts have to remain secret in order to succeed, the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad."
Interestingly enough, the Wall Street Journal published a story about the operation leading to the deaths of Weinstein and Giovanni this morning before Obama's speech.
The White House has ordered a review of the operation to find out what happened and avoid such a mistake in the future, Obama said.
"One of the things that sets Americans 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. ... We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org