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Obama Admits He Killed Hostage Who Begged for Washington's Help

April 24, 2015
Spencer Ackerman, Sabrina Siddiqui, Paul Lewis and Alan Yuhas / The Guardian

The broad targeting of 'al-Qaida compounds' suggests that a 2013 policy change ordered by the President -- one requiring 'near certainty' that suspect is present -- has not been implemented. This explains why, for every "terrorist" that the US has ordered killed, the US has killed 28 "non-target" civilians. The wife of Warren Weinstein, the 73-year-old American hostage killed in a January drone strike on Pakistan, now blames the Obama administration and al-Qaida for her husband's death.


(October 3, 2013) -- In a videotaped plea to the president, secretary of state, the media and his family, US government contractor Warren Weinstein is seen urging the Obama administration to negotiate for his release.

White House Admits:
'We Didn't Know Who Drone Strike Was Aiming to Kill'

Spencer Ackerman, Sabrina Siddiqui and Paul Lewis / The Guardian

NEW YORK (April 23, 2015) -- The targets of the deadly drone strikes that killed two hostages and two suspected American members of al-Qaida were "al-Qaida compounds" rather than specific terrorist suspects, the White House disclosed on Thursday.

The lack of specificity suggests that despite a much-publicized 2013 policy change by Barack Obama restricting drone killings by, among other things, requiring "near certainty that the terrorist target is present", the US continues to launch lethal operations without the necessity of knowing who specifically it seeks to kill, a practice that has come to be known as a "signature strike".

Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, acknowledged that the January deaths of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto might prompt the tightening of targeting standards ahead of lethal drone and other counter-terrorism strikes. A White House review is under way. "In the aftermath of a situation like this, it raises legitimate questions about whether additional changes need to be made to these protocols," Earnest said.

Earnest said that "what was targeted" in the two January strikes on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was "an al-Qaida compound". The two US civilians killed, longtime English-language propagandist Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq of al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent, were not "high-value targets" marked for death, he confirmed.

In a May 2013 speech, Obama indicated that drone strikes were only permissible when the administration possessed "near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set".

Other criteria unveiled included an actual imminent terrorist threat, even though the Justice Department has held that membership of al-Qaida necessarily implies the posing of such a threat and an absence of viable alternatives to the strikes.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the accidental killings revealed on Thursday raise "questions about the reliability and the depth of the intelligence that the government is relying on to conduct drone strikes".

"In neither of these two cases did the government actually know beforehand who it was killing. It does raise questions about how much the government knows -- or how little the government knows -- before it pulls the trigger," Jaffer said. "Perhaps that doesn't in itself suggest that the strikes were unlawful, but it certainly raises some questions."

What Earnest described as hundreds of hours of surveillance of the compounds, as well as "near continuous surveillance" in the days ahead of the strike on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, did not result in information that hostages were inside. "In an environment like this, absolutely certainty is just not possible," Earnest said of the intelligence gathering efforts along the remote border.

The CIA and the US military's Joint Special Operations Command, both of which carry out drone strikes, have in the past been empowered to launch lethal "signature strikes", which do not require foreknowledge of who specific individuals are before killing them.

Obama's 2013 speech, which avoided confirmation of the signature strikes, seemed to signal that US counter-terrorism efforts from that point on would restrict or abandon the practice.

Yet, noted Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, "the administration never said the signature strikes ended in May 2013, on or off the record … in fact, they never ended."

In addition to the pledged White House review, an "inspector general" is also analyzing the mistaken strikes, although the administration will not identify whether the CIA's inspector general is performing that review.

The leadership of the Senate intelligence committee, which has long supported CIA drone strikes, pledged "vigorous oversight", chairman Richard Burr said. His Democratic counterpart, Dianne Feinstein of California, urged the administration to release an annual report on "both combatant and civilian" deaths from US drone strikes.

Zenko said it was "strange and bizarre" that lethal US operations have received less public scrutiny than CIA torture, the subject of a 6,000-page Senate report partially released last year.

Human-rights observers see little indication, two years after Obama's speech, that the US meets its own stated standards on preventing civilian casualties in counter-terrorism operations. Reprieve, looking at US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, concluded last year that the US killed nearly 1,150 people while targeting 41 individuals.

Reprieve lawyer Alka Pradhan, who represents victims of drone strikes, praised the administration for apologizing to family members of Weinstein and Lo Porto, but warned that without increased and consistent transparency it will face charges of hypocrisy from the drone-attack survivors whose plight the administration has never acknowledged.

"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. Inconsistencies like this are seen around the world as hypocritical, and do the United States' image real harm," Pradhan said in a statement.

Earlier this month, a collaborative report from the Open Society Justice Initiative and researchers from the Yemeni nongovernmental organization Mwatana Organization for Human Rights documented nine US air strikes between May 2012 and April 2014 that caused civilian harm.

Based on interviews with victims and their relatives, eyewitnesses, doctors and hospital staff, the report cites a US drone strike that killed 12 people, including a pregnant woman and three children, as well as another incident in which the US struck a house containing 19 people, including women and children.

Earnest said that although the US considered the compound a legitimate target used by al-Qaida, "the operation would not have been carried out" had the US known about the presence of the hostages.

Warren Weinstein's Wife:
US Efforts to Rescue Husband 'Disappointing'

Alan Yuhas / The Guardian

NEW YORK (April 23, 2015) -- The wife of an American hostage killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan has placed blame for his death at the feet of both the "inconsistent and disappointing" efforts of the US government and her husband's al-Qaida captors, who she says "will have to face their God to answer for their actions".

Warren Weinstein, 73, was killed in a January drone strike on an al-Qaida compound in Pakistan, the White House revealed on Thursday, crushing his family's hopes that he might be freed after more than three years as a hostage.

"Those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility," his wife Elaine said in a statement. "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."

Elaine Weinstein thanked several members of Congress for their attempts to press for her husband's release, as well as "specific officials" of the FBI, but reserved damning words for other sectors of the government.

"Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the US government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years," she said.

"We hope that my husband's death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the US government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families."

A representative of the family told the Guardian they were "devastated".

In a video released by al-Qaida months after his capture in 2011, Weinstein pleaded to Barack Obama personally, saying "my life is in your hands, Mr President. If you accept the demands, I live. If you don't accept the demands, then I die.

"I've done a lot of service for my country, and I would hope that my country will now look after me and take care of me and meet the demands of the mujahedeen."

Al-Qaida said in its statement with the video that it had kidnapped Weinstein "only seeking to exchange him" for prisoners held by the US. Later his captors said they kept Weinstein hostage because he was Jewish.

The White House called for Weinstein's release and but drew a line in the sand after the video emerged, refusing to negotiate with al-Qaida despite concerns for the health of Weinstein, then 70. Weinstein suffered from heart problems, high blood pressure and asthma, and after his abduction, his employer, the developer JE & Austin Associates, implored his kidnappers to get him medications.

The then White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters he did not believe that Obama had seen the video at the time. On Thursday, Obama said he takes "full responsibility" for the operations that killed Weinstein and an Italian civilian. "I profoundly regret what happened," he said. "On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to their families."

Weinstein's family campaigned for years to secure his release, winning allies in Congress but failing to make much headway with the administration.

But only rarely mentioned by the administration, the abduction seemed to fall from focus as the Middle East convulsed with crises in Syria and Iraq. In a 2013 video, Weinstein himself said he felt "totally abandoned and forgotten" and again begged for help. Al-Qaida even wrote to his family, asking them to do what they were already attempting: "pressure your government". [Update from NPR: Since we posted, the AP has removed its version of the video from YouTube.]

Also in 2013, Weinstein sent a letter to journalists, saying: "I have appealed several times to President Obama to help me but to no avail. I am therefore writing now to the media to ask that you help me to gain my release and rejoin my family.

"I hope that the media can mount a campaign to get the American government to actively pursue my release and to make sure that I am not forgotten and just become another statistic. Given my age and my health, I don't have time on my side."

Hope briefly returned to the family after the Obama administration exchanged five members of the Taliban for American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl. Weinstein's wife and two daughters made a new push for action, now in the context that the US would and had negotiated a prisoner swap. Congressman John Delaney, representing Weinstein's home state of Maryland, introduced a House resolution to press the issue, telling the Maryland Gazette: "I think it's our view that they could do more."

But publicly the administration remained unmoved, possibly deterred by the outrage born of the previous trade. Weinstein stayed in Pakistan, each video missive showing him more frail -- even though he said in one video that al-Qaida was providing his medications.

Weinstein was seized on 13 August 2011 when men with assault rifles stormed into his home in Lahore, where he worked as a director for a USAid contractor. He told friends he hoped the job, like his time in the Peace Corps and with USAid as a younger man, would help lift Pakistanis out of poverty by developing ties between businesses, banks, the government and locals. He had told his staff he hoped to finish his project and go home in days.

He had lived in Pakistan for eight years, occasionally returning to his family's home in Rockville, Maryland, or living with his wife and daughters abroad.

They visited almost all the major cities there, and when they weren't traveling, their home in Lahore was always full of visitors coming and going. "Our house was like Grand Central Station," his wife told the Gazette, adding that her husband loved the country's food, culture and people. "He was practically Pakistani," she said.

Before his time in Pakistan, Weinstein worked mostly abroad on similar development projects, racking up a résumé that suggests a man who was intelligent, devoted to serving others and almost tireless to a fault.

He served with the Peace Corps in stints in Ivory Coast and Togo, and then found work with USAid, the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group and as a professor at New York University's Oswego campus. At the age of 59, he turned to consulting and shortly thereafter found a home in Pakistan.

He frequently sent his daughters, Jennifer and Alisa, postcards plastered with the most interesting stamps he could find. When grandchildren arrived, he would Skype with them as much as he could.

Weinstein had worked in dangerous countries before but was adept at making friends and would adopt parts of other cultures, a Pakistani acquaintance told the New York Times after his abduction. He learned Urdu -- in addition to seven other languages -- and would sometimes wear the shalwar kameez tunic and trousers of Pakistani culture.

Having graduated with a doctorate from Columbia University in 1970, Weinstein turned to development work abroad and "working on and teaching the protection of human rights", as he wrote in his 2013 letter. He also published several works on ethnic conflicts in Africa and people's relations to their colonial pasts.

At the time, the family said they had no choice but to believe the administration's assurances that it was doing everything possible to secure Weinstein's freedom. "We have to take it on faith," his wife said.

In their statement released on Thursday, the family said they are looking forward to the results of the independent investigation into the circumstances of Weinstein's death.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.




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