Following a statement from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama spoke on Friday about the deaths of two hostages being held by al Qaeda: an American, Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto.
Both had been held captive since 2011 and 2012, respectively. Their deaths were the unintended consequence of an operation that took out targeted individuals within al Qaeda. Obama said he had no words that could help the families of the two hostages, emphasizing that Italy has been a longtime friend and ally of the United States.
“In the face of the distressing news of the death of Giovanni Lo Porto, I wish first of all to express my sympathy for his mother and all his family,” said Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni. He described the work done to bring Lo Porto home, lamenting that the outcome was unsatisfactory “as a result of the tragic and fatal error made by our American allies, an error recognized by President Obama.”
Despite U.S. involvement, Gentiloni said the responsibility for both Giovanni and Weinstein’s deaths “lies fully and squarely with the terrorists, against whom we confirm Italy’s commitment alongside our allies.”
There’s “nothing I can ever say or do to ease their heartache,” said Obama of each individual’s family, going on to formally take responsibility for the operation and the resulting deaths.
The president also explained the timeline of the declassification of the deaths, noting that it was made public now “because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth,” and because “the United States is a democracy committed to openness in good times and in bad.”
While he accepted responsibility for the events that led to the hostages’ deaths, he made it clear that the action — which The Wall Street Journal reports was part of a drone strike operation — was “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region.” Obama added that it only took place after hundreds of hours of observing al Qaeda there, and after U.S. forces were certain civilians were not present and that taking the area was not a safe option.
“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorist specifically — mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” said Obama. “One of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront our imperfections.”
Earnest’s statement also detailed the deaths of two other Americans who died during counterterrorism activity within the same area: Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq, both members of al Qaeda in leadership positions.
Gadahn is thought to have died in a different incident, but Farouq was believed to have been present and died along with Weinstein and Lo Porto. “Neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations,” said the press release from Earnest.
Unsurprisingly, some Republicans have been critical of Obama. “Warren Weinstein did not have to die,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, according to The Daily Beast. “His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity.”
Hunter also brought up the trade of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a decision that many on the right disagreed with, adding that he’d made recommendations that could have been of use in organizing agencies working together on these issues.
Elaine Weinstein, Warren’s wife, said that the “ultimate responsibility” for her husband’s death is on “those who took Warren captive over three years ago.” She added that she thanks “Congressman John Delaney, Senator Barbara Mikulski, and Senator Ben Cardin” for their hard work; “unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three-and-a-half years.”
According to Fox, she also expressed displeasure with both military and government help offered by Pakistan, where Warren had been working as a contractor offering aid. Ultimately, it’s likely a combination: government operations and preparation can always be improved, and there are usually organizational and communication problems in any large institution.
The Pakistani government must also assume some of the fault for an imperfect aid and recovery, as does Obama as commander-in-chief. However, the instincts of all commenting on the event are likely the most important and salient: The full blame should lie on those who were holding the men hostage.