Blind Eye

04.23.15 11:00 PM ET

CIA Drones Targeted al Qaeda Meeting—and Killed Hostages Instead

The agency’s drone operators had little idea who they were shooting at. They fired anyway. Now, a pair of hostages are dead. And Washington is demanding answers.

The U.S. had practically round-the-clock surveillance of the site where American hostage Warren Weinstein was held by al Qaeda in Pakistan. Yet a CIA drone strike still accidentally killed him and a fellow captive, Italian Giovanni Lo Porto. And that’s again raising questions about the accuracy of drone strikes and the danger they pose to innocent civilians.

A U.S. official who had been briefed on the January 14 strike told The Daily Beast that it was targeting a meeting of mid-level al Qaeda leaders at what was believed to be a compound consisting of several buildings. As the suspected jihadists pulled up, U.S. drones hit them. The U.S. official said that those conducting the strike were not sure who everyone attending the purported meeting was.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Thursday that U.S. intelligence officials “had no idea [Weinstein] was there.”

Another U.S. official told The Daily Beast that the government is now conducting a “thorough, independent review” into whether it needs to refine its assessments of the risks to hostages in future strikes. Earnest also said there is “an ongoing [CIA] inspector general review of this matter.” A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.

Obama administration officials sought to portray the hostages’ deaths as an unavoidable mistake in what President Obama called, in a brief televised statement, “the fog of war.” Earnest said intelligence officials had determined “with near certainty” that the site was used by members of al Qaeda but not that any hostages were held at the facility.

Lawmakers are now asking questions about the drone attack and how it was that the CIA never knew civilians were in danger. “I have asked the agency to come in to give me a deep dive on the operation and suspect that other members will want the same,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast. Schiff said he’d not yet discussed with the committee chairman, Devin Nunes, whether to hold a formal investigation or hearings, “but I would recommend a thorough review.”

Congressional overseers of the intelligence community had been previously briefed about the operation. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, who represents Weinstein’s home state, told The Daily Beast he had received a call from CIA Director John Brennan on Wednesday. Cardin also said he had personally called Weinstein’s wife to offer his condolences.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has already reviewed the operation twice, Chairman Richard Burr told The Daily Beast. He hinted that the panel looked into the matter a second time after it was realized that civilians had died in the operation. Burr didn’t say when that second examination began.

“If for some reason there are unintended consequences of anything that might come out of intelligence operations, we routinely take a second look at it. As it relates to this, we already have and we will continue to look into details,” Burr said. “The fact that there were individuals that were killed that we didn’t originally anticipate would have been affected automatically triggers a re-look.”

But some lawmakers remained hawkish on the drone program, which has been a key pillar in the Obama administration’s counterterrorism operations.

drone targeting is FUBAR

Photo Illustration by Dair Massey/The Daily Beast

“It’s called war. It’s called war. It’s called war. And you’re not going to stop tragedies like this from happening as long as you’re in a war,” said Senator Lindsey Graham. “This is part of war. You can’t have a war without collateral damage.”

Graham said he doesn’t hold the president responsible for the accidental killing of hostages. “The families blame al Qaeda, and they should. We made a mistake. I’ve been a big critic of Obama—I’m not going to blame him for this. I blame al Qaeda… We’re not going to terminate this drone program. I’m sorry these two innocent civilians were killed, I’m glad the two Americans collaborating with the enemy were. Please understand we’re at war. It’s a nasty, terrible business—but I’m in it to win it.”

The CIA, for its part, was tracking someone whom it thought was an important, senior al Qaeda member at that compound, officials said. Precisely who he was, the CIA says it didn’t know.

Three months after the drone strike, they may have gotten a very public clue. On April 12, al Qaeda confirmed in a tweet that a drone strike had killed an American, Ahmed Farouq, who’d become a senior member of al Qaeda. Though not among the most-well known terrorists, as deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Farouq had a major role in the planning of a September 2014 attack in which militants infiltrated Pakistan’s navy and tried to hijack one of its ships.

The strike that al Qaeda said killed Farouq was thought to be the same strike that killed the hostages.

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The American-turned-al Qaeda terrorist had been in the CIA’s crosshairs just weeks before the strike on the compound. He was reportedly targeted in an earlier U.S. drone strike, in December 2014, and there were conflicting accounts about whether he’d been killed.

Against that backdrop, the CIA was intensely watching the compound where Weinstein and Lo Porto were being held. Earnest said the U.S. had hundreds of hours of surveillance on the site, and in the time before the strike, “nearly continuous” surveillance. Whomever the CIA was looking for, he was important enough to watch without blinking.

Ordinarily, Obama reviews and signs off on any strikes that target Americans, but in this case, the CIA didn’t know Farouq was there, so the president didn’t review the mission, officials said. The Wall Street Journal reported that the CIA observed someone they believed was a senior Al Qaeda member entering the compound, but that they didn’t know it was Farouq.

Yet officials say that in the initial battlefield assessment conducted after the strikes, there was no evidence that either civilians or top al Qaeda leaders had been killed. Rather, questions only emerged in the last few weeks, the U.S. official said. And by this month, “there was a high level of confidence that civilians had been killed” as well, the U.S. official said.

Earnest said that in the weeks that followed the strike, some as yet undescribed intelligence indicated that Weinstein may have been killed. U.S. analysts followed leads and pored over hundreds of hours of surveillance video. Only in the past few days did they determine with a degree of “high confidence” that Weinstein had been killed in the operation, Earnest said. Obama spoke to Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday to tell him that Lo Porto also had been killed. The conversation was “relatively short and very direct,” Earnest said.

The CIA is supposed to follow a rigorous process meant to test the quality of the intelligence used in drones strikes and to ensure that civilians aren’t killed in those operations. “They’re looking for intelligence that would wave them off,” Earnest said. Assessments about a particular targeted go through “a thorough red team process” to review the intelligence before any strike is conducted and “to try to poke holes in it, to make sure it represents the complete picture,” Earnest said.

But if the CIA drone operators’ experience is anything like that of their military counterparts, there are frequently concerns about collateral damage.

“If we see something that we think might have been a problem…we’ll report those. We report a lot of them, actually,” said Colonel Jim Cluff, commander of the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing, which runs drone operations at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Cluff added that he wasn’t aware of any investigation going on now.

“If there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, and it happens all the time, we want to make sure,” Cluff told The Daily Beast, adding that the Air Force watches a target from a variety of angles to determine whether there’s any risk of collateral damage. “There’s probably three or four video sources watching an event…We have that ability [to say], ‘Hey, let’s hold off a second.’”

In the case of the strike that killed Weinstein and Lo Porto, administration officials said there was no indication that civilians were in the compound. Earnest described that as illustrative of al Qaeda’s willingness to keep its hostages, whom it considers particularly valuable as negotiating chips, away from the eyes of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. intelligence showed that Weinstein and Lo Porto may have been held in the geographic area where the strike occurred, if not in the compound itself. Had they known, history suggests the CIA might have held off on the drone strike.

A Taliban source told The Daily Beast that when Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was being held by the Haqqani Network, a Taliban affiliate, “many times we were not attacked by drone, and the reason was the U.S. [did] not want to kill Bergdahl.”

If the U.S. had reason to believe Weinstein might be nearby, the military could have theoretically planned a rescue mission. But Earnest said that could have posed a risk to U.S. forces and that there was no guarantee Weinstein would be found alive.

“We can’t order up a special operations raid every time we suspect a terrorist might be somewhere,” Earnest said.

“In this case, we had abundant surveillance of this compound,” Schiff said. “The intelligence that there were al Qaeda figures operating in this compound proved to be correct. The intelligence that there was no one else in the compound proved to be fatally wrong.”

—with additional reporting by Sami Yousafzai, Jacob Siegel, Noah Shachtman, Jamie Dettmer, and Barbie Latza Nadeau