In a televised speech from the White House briefing room yesterday, President Obama admitted that the U.S. military was responsible for the deaths of two al-Qaeda hostages. The two hostages — American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto — were both killed in a drone strike carried out in a remote area of Pakistan in January. According to the New York Times, the CIA authorized the strike — which was intended to destroy an al-Qaeda compound — after collecting hours of surveillance but failing to recognize that the two hostages were being held there. Another American — albeit one affiliated with al-Qaeda — was also killed in the attack.
Obama’s drone strike policy has been a contentious issue throughout his tenure. Despite his early opposition to the Iraq War and foreign intervention, Obama has actually expanded the War on Terror that he inherited from Bush. Given their covert nature, drone strikes aren’t accompanied by readily available statistics. Yet the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that more than 2,400 people and 273 civilians were killed in 390 drone strikes during Obama’s first five years in office. That adds up to eight times as many drone strikes as were launched by the Bush administration.
In his statement describing the attack that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto, Obama sounded genuinely remorseful.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” Obama said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
An apology, of course, does little to correct years of carrying out a flawed policy. Although this is the first time he’s shown the public how the news impacts him, Obama’s administration has been killing civilians in drone strikes for years.
Obama stood by the administration’s decision to carry out the drone strike, claiming it was “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region.”
He then acknowledged that mistakes can inevitably be made.
“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,” he said. He also referred to the United States as “a democracy committed to openness in good times and bad.”
Obama’s forthright acknowledgment that the drone strike inadvertently killed two hostages was the right move. It shows that the president understands the flaws in his drone policy and that he’s remorseful about taking innocent lives in the name of fighting terrorism. His claim that the U.S. is “committed to openness,” of course, is outrageous. It’s especially ironic considering the CIA conducts its drone operations in secret, with almost no “openness” at all.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration plans to review its drone strike policy and determine how it was unable to gather evidence that the hostages were inside the compound. It’s unlikely, however, that any real changes will be implemented anytime soon. At least the president has taken one step in the right direction by acknowledging and apologizing for his mistakes. Now it’s important that he figure out the best way to ensure that those mistakes do not happen again.
Photo Source: NBC Screenshot