Obama on Accidental Hostage Deaths: 'I Profoundly Regret What Happened'

Susan Walsh/AP

Three Americans, one of whom was a hostage held by al-Qaida, were killed during counterterrorism operations this year near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the White House said Thursday morning.

The White House said two hostages, Warren Weinstein, an American who had been held by the terrorist group since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national held captive since 2012, were accidentally killed during a military operation in January. The New York Times and several other publications report that they were killed in a drone strike.

President Obama said during a statement from the White House later Thursday morning that he takes "full responsibility" for the operations.

"As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni," he said. "I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families."

Officials also said Thursday that Ahmed Farouq, an American who they call an al-Qaida leader, was killed in the same operation that claimed Weinstein and Lo Porto's lives. Adam Gadahn, another American member of al-Qaida, was also killed in January, in what the White House said was "likely" a separate military operation in the same region. Officials said that neither members were "specifically targeted," and intelligence personnel did not know they were present at the sites of the strikes.

Obama said that he had directed his national security team "to do everything possible" to locate Weinstein after he was kidnapped. Weinstein had been in Pakistan on a four-year aid project funded by the U.S. government. Two days before Weinstein was due to return to the U.S., he was captured in his home by al-Qaida operatives.

The president said the January operation successfully targeted members of al-Qaida.

"We do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al-Qaida," Obama said. "What we did not know, tragically, was al-Qaida was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound."

The White House said Thursday that it "had no reason to believe" either hostage was present at the targeted al-Qaida compound.

The information, which was classified until now, was released at Obama's request, the statement read. "[The president] takes full responsibility for these operations and believes it is important to provide the American people with as much information as possible about our counterterrorism operations, particularly when they take the lives of fellow citizens," Earnest said. "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."

Obama said that he spoke with Weinstein's wife, Elaine, who released a statement after the White House announcement.

"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.

Elaine thanked lawmakers from her home state of Maryland—Rep. John Delaney, Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Sen. Bob Cardin—and several FBI officials "for their relentless efforts to free my husband."

She also criticized the federal government's response to her husband's situation.

"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," Elaine said. "We hope that my husband's death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families."

In 2013, Sen. Lindsey Graham said that Gadahn, one of the Americans killed who was affiliated with al-Qaida, "should be considered an enemy combatant" and that "the use of lethal force" against him "is appropriate and should be utilized without hesitation." Gadahn, who had served as a spokesperson and propagandist for al-Qaida, is on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists Listand had been indicted for treason.

In December, American journalist Luke Somers was killed during a rescue attempt by U.S. military personnel from an al-Qaida compound where he was being held. Somers had been abducted in Yemen in September 2013. Pierre Korkie, a South African teacher and another hostage, was also killed in the operation. Officials said they did not know Korkie was at the targeted site.

Matt Berman and Emma Roller contributed to this article.

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