The family of an al-Qaeda hostage killed in a U.S. drone strike is “devastated” by a new report that the CIA spotted a Western hostage but didn’t keep surveillance on him.
Warren Weinstein was abducted Aug. 13, 2011, by armed gunmen who burst into his Lahore home. The Rockville, Md., resident put in several years with USAID and the World Bank before becoming an economic development consultant in 2003.
In April, President Obama admitted a January drone strike on the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan killed Weinstein and an Italian aid worker also being held hostage, Giovani Lo Porto.
Obama said at the time that he “directed that the existence of this operation be declassified and disclosed publicly. I did so because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth.”
“We believed that this was an al-Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible. And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaeda,” he said. “What we did not know, tragically, is that al-Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound. It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.”
But the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials suspect they may have spotted Weinstein long before he was killed:
U.S. officials said that the CIA and other spy agencies devoted significant resources to finding Weinstein but never had clear intelligence on where he was being held. The drone imagery showing an apparent hostage was collected as long as a year before Weinstein was killed, according to officials who said that agency analysts initially assessed that it was unlikely that the captive was the American.
It is unclear why the CIA reached that preliminary determination. The agency declined to comment.
Even so, the imagery contained clues that the person “was clearly a non-internal hostage,” a U.S. official said, meaning a prisoner who was being handled in a way that suggested he was of high importance and from outside the tribal territory in Pakistan where al-Qaeda is based. Another U.S. official said the person stood out in part because of how he was kept segregated from others.
Weinstein’s widow, Elaine, charged that “the Obama administration has mishandled this entire incident.”
“They were aware that the terrorists stole Warren’s body from his grave and allowed those cruel people to desecrate his remains without doing anything to intervene,” she said. “I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
The Italian government has recovered and returned the remains of Lo Porto to his family, but the U.S. government hasn’t brought Warren’s remains home.
John Brownlee, an attorney representing the Weinstein family, told CNN today “the family feels deceived.”
“The family is devastated by this news,” he said. “…We have no idea exactly what happened. What we’ve asked is that the CIA share with us their findings, what did they know, when did they know it, what could have been done.”
“He deserved better and the family deserves better.”
Brownlee said the family feels deceived because throughout the years Weinstein was held captive the administration “always told the family ‘we’re doing everything in our power'” to bring him home.
State Department press secretary John Kirby said he couldn’t get into the particulars of the case while an investigation is ongoing.
“Our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to the Weinstein family as well as the Lo Porto family for the tragic loss of their loved ones. They’re never far from our minds, that is why the president ordered an investigation into this particular strike to try get at what happened,” Kirby said.
“And if there’s any lesson that we can learn going forward to prevent such a tragedy from happening — that inquiry you know is ongoing so I’m really not at liberty to speak to anything that investigators are finding. I’m certainly not at liberty to speak to intelligence that led to the strike itself.”
Kirby added that “nobody puts a higher premium on the safety and security of American citizens abroad more than we do.”
“I won’t speak for this particular case, but I can tell you we never lose sight of them — these hostages. We never stop trying to acquire and sustain information about them and reacquire if we’ve lost it,” he said. “…It is not always perfect. Intelligence is never perfect, it’s a mosaic, and it does change over time and it can change rapidly over time. But we do the best we can to not only make sure that we know exactly who we’re going after, where and when and how, but that we’re going to minimize any civilian casualties or collateral damage. Not to mention, any harm that could befall American hostages on the site.”