President Obama pledged Friday that his administration would seek to learn from the mistakes that led to the inadvertent killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of two Western hostages, including an American, in a drone strike against al Qaida earlier this year.
“We’re going to review what happened,” Obama said during a speech to mark the tenth anniversary of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “We’re going to identify the lessons that can be learned and any improvements and changes that can be made.”
A somber and contrite Obama sought to make clear that he grasped the gravity of the military and intelligence failures that led to the deaths of the two hostages, both aid workers.
“These aren’t abstractions and we’re not cavalier about what we do,” Obama said. “We understand the solemn responsibilities that are given to us.”
On Thursday, the White House acknowledged that an American and an Italian held by al Qaida were killed, along with a U.S. citizen who fought for the terrorist group, in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan in January. Officials said they did not know the hostages were present, and did not have information indicating the presence of the American al Qaida member. Another American al Qaida member was also killed in a separate strike the same month, the White House said, although he wasn’t specifically targeted.
The unusual and embarrassing announcement sparked international anger and raised questions about U.S. intelligence gathering, especially in dealing with hostage situations, as well as about the military’s regular use of unmanned drones.
“We all bleed when we lose an American life,” Obama added in his speech to ODNI staff. “We don’t take this work lightly. And I know that each and every one of you understand the magnitude of what we do and the stakes involved.”
The president also put a positive spin on the upcoming review. “This self-reflection, this willingness to examine ourselves, to make corrections, to do better—that’s part of what makes us Americans,” he said.
The ODNI was created in 2005 to prevent the kind of intelligence-sharing failures that took place in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to create an intelligence czar who wasn’t affiliated with any one agency. Previously, the CIA director had control over all intelligence gathering agencies, leading to concerns about inter-agency rivalries, and making it difficult to hold the CIA itself accountable.
“Today’s disclosures just raise new questions about the reliability and depth of the intelligence the government is relying on,” Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told msnbc Thursday. “The government literally didn’t know who it was killing.”
Elaine Weinstein, the widow of Warren Weinstein, the American aid worker, said Thursday that the work by the U.S. government to recover her husband over his four years in captivity was “inconsistent and disappointing.”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday that the administration is considering creating what it calls a “fusion cell” of employees from different federal agencies, aimed at coordinating the government’s response to hostage situations, including working with the families of hostages.