WASHINGTON – A U.S. operation along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan inadvertently killed two hostages earlier this year, including an American contractor held by al-Qaeda for nearly four years, the White House said on Thursday.
President Barack Obama said he takes full responsibility for the operation and that he profoundly regrets the deaths. He did not provide details on the operation or identify which arm of the U.S. government was responsible. Nor did he specify whether it took place in Afghanistan or Pakistan
Obama said the mission was "fully consistent" with guidelines for conducting counter-terrorism missions in the region. Other U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the operation as a CIA drone strike on the site of an al-Qaeda meeting in Pakistan. And U.S. government officials said the CIA carried out the drone strikes on Jan. 14 and Jan. 19 in Pakistan. A CIA spokesman declined to comment.
"Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al-Qaida compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible," Obama said in remarks from the White House. "And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida."
The two strikes occurred within about a week of each other in January and each targeted a building where U.S. intelligence officials believed that al-Qaeda leaders were gathering for meetings, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. Neither strike was intended to target a specific individual, but rather a general gathering of suspected al-Qaeda members, the official said.
Before Obama's press conference, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement:"Our hearts go out to the families of Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national who had been an al-Qaeda hostage since 2012."
In a statement, Elaine Weinstein said Thursday that she and her family were devastated by the news and still 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.
Weinstein, of Rockville, Maryland, was the Pakistan director of J.E. Austin Associates, a USAID contractor, when he was taken hostage in Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 13, 2011. In December 2013, al-Qaeda released a video in which the 73-year-old pleaded with the Obama administration to negotiate with his captors.
Lo Porto worked for the German aid group Welthungerhilfe. He had joined the aid group in October 2011 and was working as a project manager in Pakistan's Multan region when he was kidnapped.
"We're shattered by today's news," Simone Pott said. "So much was done to try and get him released."
Obama said he personally spoke Wednesday with Weinstein's wife, Elaine, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to inform them of the bungled operation.
"Warren and Giovanni's legacy will endure," Obama said, speaking of their humanitarian work.
Renzi expressed his "profound pain" over Lo Porto's death, saying the aid worker had "dedicated his life to the service of others."
Among the al-Qaida operatives believed killed in the strike was American Ahmed Farouq, who the White House says was an al-Qaida leader. 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 operation in January.
Earnest also said that "while both Farouq and Gadahn were al-Qaeda members, neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations."
Obama made no mention of U.S. citizens, Farouq and Gadahn, also known as "Azzam the American." The president did express regret for the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Poto and offered his "grief and condolences" to their families.
"I realize there are no words that can ever equal their loss," he said.
WANTED POSTER: View the FBI Most Wanted poster for Adam Gadahn
It is not the first time that a U.S. counter-terrorism operation has accidentally killed an American. Although Obama has insisted that the CIA and U.S. military take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, the strikes have resulted in numerous deaths of innocent people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
In December, a special forces raid inadvertently killed Luke Somers, an American held hostage in Yemen that the U.S. military was trying to rescue.
"The uniquely tragic nature of the operation that resulted in the deaths of two innocent hostages is something we will do our utmost to ensure is not repeated," Earnest said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the panel has already been reviewing the January operation that killed Weinstein, Lo Porto and Farouq, but would now "review that operation in greater detail."
"We should also again review all procedures and safeguards to make sure every measure is taken to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians," she said. Feinstein added that more information should be made public about U.S. counter-terrorism strikes, including an annual report on the number of combatant and civilians who are killed as a result.
News of the accidental deaths of an innocent American and an innocent Italian was sure to bring increased pressure on Obama to curtail or scale back counter-terrorism drone strikes, a signature tactic of his presidency. The botched operation will also force the White House to confront lingering questions about its policies for responding to the kidnapping of Americans by extremist groups in the Middle East and South Asia.
"I'm saddened, disappointed and outraged that our government was not able to bring Warren home," said Rep. John K. Delaney, the Weinstein's representative in Congress. "Today's news is a personal tragedy for Warren's family but also a sobering national security and government failure."
Local10.com reporter Andrea Torres wrote this story with Local10.com contributors reports from The Washington Post, The Associated Press and ABC News.
LOCAL10.COM PARTNERS: The Washington Post reporters Missy Ryan, Craig Whitlock, Greg Miller and Dan Morse contributed to this report. Also The Associated Press reporters Julie Pace, Robert Burns, Nedra Pickler, Jim Kuhnhenn, Nicole Winfield and Frank Jordans. ABC News contributed to this story.