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Killing of Hostages Calls US Drone Policy Into Question

FILE - An image made from video released anonymously to reporters in Pakistan on Dec. 26, 2013 shows 72-year-old American development worker Warren Weinstein, who was kidnapped by al-Qaida, appealing to President Obama to negotiate his release.

The news Thursday that an American aid worker, along with an Italian, was inadvertently killed in a U.S. drone strike will deepen criticism about a pillar of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, experts and advocates said.

Piloted by U.S. military and CIA personnel sitting far away from targets, unmanned aerial vehicles, known otherwise as drones, have been hailed as an effective way to target a shadowy terrorist enemy without risking American lives needlessly.

For critics, however, drones are a means to “video game warfare,” and the process of identifying legitimate targets, particularly those involving American citizens and minimizing civilian casualties, is shrouded in secrecy.

“It’s yet another example of the information gaps that the U.S. may face in trying to identify lawful targets in these areas where the U.S. has very little intelligence on the ground,” said Letta Tayler, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who has investigated civilian drone casualties in Yemen.

“And it raises questions if drones are really the magic weapon that the administration says there are,” she said in a Skype interview. “They are only as good as the intelligence used in targeting.”

The intended targets of the two January strikes, U.S. officials said, were al-Qaida members. However, the terror group members who ended up being killed in both the Jan. 14 strike and a second on Jan. 19 were killed inadvertently, according to the administration. Those men, identified respectively as Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn, were both American citizens.

It was the Jan. 14 strike that killed Warren Weinstein, a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been taken hostage in 2011 four days before his seven-year stint was due to end. The Italian who died, Giovanni Lo Porto, was abducted in 2012, soon after arriving in Pakistan to do humanitarian work.

Contrition from Obama

In a televised statement, Obama was contrite as he said the deaths occurred during what he called U.S. counterterrorism operations. He did not use the word “drone.”

“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, that mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” he said in a live televised statement.

“As a husband and as a father, I cannot begin to imagine the anguish the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today…. I know there is nothing I could ever say to ease their heartache,” he said.

Questions about drone policy are likely not only about whether poor intelligence or poor execution is to blame, but also why it took three months for the White House to reveal the hostages' deaths.

A U.S. administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA that officials had “near clarity” on what was being targeted in the two strikes.

“We assessed with a very high level of confidence the compounds hosted only al-Qaida members,” the official said.

The official said two days after the Jan. 19 strike, officials began investigating that “there may have been non-combatants” but it wasn’t until April that the government had “high confidence” that Americans had been killed.

The Obama administration has been pressed by human rights and rule-of-law activists to be more forthcoming in how it makes targeting decisions. Some of the most vehement critics say they are merely assassinations by another name.

That criticism goes even further when Americans are involved. The government official said there are approval procedures that must be followed if an American is to be targeted, such as with the strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a prolific publicist for al-Qaida who was killed in a drone strike in 2011 in Yemen.

The exact nature of those approval procedures was not immediately clear.

Near Certainty Standard

In a landmark speech two years ago, Obama laid out specific conditions for the United States to meet in conducting drone strikes around the world.

“Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured -- the highest standard we can set,” he said on May 23, 2013, at the National Defense University.

That's an unreasonable standard in any conflict, never mind a war on terror, said John Pike, a military analyst and founder of the Web site

“That was a lawyer talking, not a wartime commander,” Pike told VOA. “Waiting for near certainty in war is a recipe for defeat… There is no near certainty in war.”

Critics also say drones are the “least worst” option for waging war against an enemy that is fighting from the shadows rather than out on a battlefield.

It’s a reflection, Pike said, of most Americans’ belief of how the war on terror should be fought: with precise weaponry that avoids scenarios like the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, where 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, following an effort to capture a Somali warlord.

“The alternatives are ‘Black Hawk Down’ or carpet bombing and I don’t think there’s much appetite for ‘Black Hawk Down’,” he said. “Most reasonable people will support drone strikes.”

Too Much Secrecy?

But many observers also say the administration’s secrecy is harmful, breeding doubt and mistrust, and preventing accountability.

“This announcement was extraordinary but it should not have been. It should’ve been part of a routine process of informing the public, about counterterrorism operation including their successes and their failures,” said Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington research group.

Added analyst Pike: “Secrecy is the first resort of the lazy. Secrecy is the easiest way out, but having said that, you don’t want to tell the bad guys you’re catching them.”

Other experts have questioned an over-reliance on drones, and say civilian deaths fuel resentment and terrorist ideologies in places like Pakistan or Yemen.

If the deaths of two Westerners in a U.S. drone strike is deserving of a White House apology, Tayler asked, what about hundreds, if not thousands, of other civilians may have been also killed inadvertently in places like Pakistan and Yemen?

“I think it’s great that the U.S. is apologizing about these two strikes,” she said. But “the families of the Yemenis and the Pakistani who are innocent and were killed in these strikes deserve the same level of compassion and acknowledgement.”

“Drones aren’t going away anytime soon,” she said, “and most likely not at all.”