In the fall of 2013, Rafiq ur Rehman, a school teacher from the remote tribal region of North Waziristan, in Pakistan, stood with his 12-year-old son, Zubair, and 9-year-old daughter, Nabila, in Washington, D.C., preparing to challenge one of the U.S. government’s most secretive means of killing.
The Rehmans say a missile fired from a U.S. drone killed 68-year-old Momina Bibi — Rehman’s mother, and grandmother to the two young children — in an October 2012 airstrike. Both Zubair and Nabila were present when the attack happened and suffered injuries. The missile had struck their grandmother straight on, obliterating her completely. There were no others killed in the attack and no substantiated reports of terrorists at the scene.
According to the family’s account, Bibi was killed tending okra while her grandkids played nearby.
The family came to the U.S. to demand answers. They were treated as honored guests among the human rights community in New York City, but when they met with lawmakers on October 20, 2013, a total of five members of Congress showed up.
For Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar, who represents 150 victims of the strikes, including the Rehman family, President Barack Obama’s recent apology for the killing of two Americans merely underscores the double standard that exists for civilian death.
“Today, if Nabila or Zubair or many of the civilian victims — if they are watching on TV the president being so remorseful over the killing of a Westerner, what message is that taking?” Akbar said Thursday in an interview with The Intercept.
The answer, he argued, is “that you do not matter, you are children of a lesser God, and I’m only going to mourn if a Westerner is killed.”
The absence of transparency, despite the Rehman family’s tremendous efforts, has been a defining feature of the Obama administration’s drone program. Typically, no amount of evidence gathered by journalists, human rights investigators or researchers indicating the death of a civilian from a drone strike will elicit an on-the-record response from the U.S. government — let alone an admission of responsibility — or prompt an independent investigation.
That was not the case on Thursday morning when President Barack Obama delivered a press conference describing a strike gone wrong. In the unprecedented address, Obama detailed how a failure in intelligence-gathering had left two civilians dead. Numerous anonymous U.S. officials said the attack occurred in Pakistan and that the CIA was responsible, though Obama and his press secretary, Josh Earnest, refused to explicitly confirm either. Unlike past cases, the unintended victims killed in the attacks were Westerners, one an Italian, the other a U.S. citizen.
The American, 74-year-old Warren Weinstein, had spent 40 years working around the world. For the last decade he had lived in Pakistan, where he served as country director for a consulting firm working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The second victim, Giovanni Lo Porto, was an Italian national. The 39-year-old had come to Pakistan four years ago, when severe floods ravaged the country. Both men ultimately found themselves hostages of al Qaeda — Weinstein was taken in 2011, Lo Porto in 2012. They had been held in a compound in Pakistan’s Shawal Valley, The New York Times reported Thursday night.
“We believed that this was an Al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Obama said of the January 15 strike. “And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of Al Qaeda. What we did not know, tragically, is that Al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
The compound had been placed under “hundreds of hours of surveillance,” Obama said. U.S. intelligence officials chose to take the shot only after achieving “near certainty” that the building was a legitimate terrorist target and civilian lives would not be risked, Earnest added. When the dust settled, American spies watched as more bodies were pulled from the rubble than expected. It would take weeks, however, for the intelligence community to confirm that the dead included Weinstein and Lo Porto. Ahmed Farouq, an American and alleged al Qaeda leader, also died in the attack. A separate U.S. airstrike in the region on January 19 was also described in detail on Thursday. U.S. intelligence officials said they believed that attack killed Adam Gadahn, a U.S. citizen and al Qaeda propagandist. Again, the Americans said they did not know he was inside when they fired.
Neither of the two strikes targeted specific individuals, U.S. officials said. The attacks were signature strikes, a much-criticized tactic in which the CIA kills people without knowing their identities, instead relying on behavioral observations. In both of the January strikes, the U.S. only learned whom it had killed after the fact.
Earnest told reporters that neither Farouq nor Gadahn were considered high-value targets, meaning they were not eligible for the type of assassination of U.S. citizens the Obama administration has deemed legal in recent years, which requires additional layers of approval. “The president did not specifically sign off on these two operations,” Earnest said.
Earnest said an inspector general was conducting an independent review of the operation.
President Obama said the operation that killed the two Westerners would be declassified and disclosed publicly, “because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth.”
“One of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes,” Obama explained. “Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.”
When asked by The Intercept if the president’s words meant there would be a policy change in how the U.S. deals with claims of civilian casualties resulting from counterterrorism operations, an administration official declined to comment.
Whether anyone from the CIA has been or will be held accountable for the strikes remains unclear. Writing for The New Yorker, Steve Coll raised the question of whether the March removal of the powerful head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center may have been linked to the attacks. For nearly a decade, a man named Mike — who uses the CIA cover name Roger — has overseen the agency’s drone program in Pakistan. Known for his apparently dark persona and chain-smoking, the counterterrorism chief is considered a principal architect of signature strikes, which in 2010 brought the number of U.S. kills in Pakistan to its highest-ever recorded total of 117.
“I predict that even this episode will have no effect,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert in U.S. counterterrorism operations, told The New York Times.
Though he did not identify the agency, the aircraft or the country, Obama, in his remarks Thursday, came as close as he ever has to directly and candidly addressing civilian casualties in the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan in public.
“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,” Obama said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
Weinstein’s family released a statement Thursday placing the ultimate responsibility for his death on the men who took him captive, but the family characterized elements of the U.S. government’s response — aside from that of lawmakers and the FBI — as “inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years.”
Following Lo Porto’s kidnapping, a petition calling on the Italian government to ensure that “all possible efforts” were made in securing his release amassed nearly 48,000 signatures. On Thursday, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the Lo Porto family was grief-stricken by the news of Giovanni’s death. “Leave me with my pain,” his mother said. “I do not have much to add,” his brother told reporters. “Obama has apologized? Thanks.”
The January attacks brought the total number of Americans killed by a drone strike under Obama to at least eight. Of that total, the U.S. has intentionally killed one.
Mustafa Qadri, an investigator with Amnesty International, has spent years conducting investigations in Pakistan, including into the strike that killed Momina Bibi. Speaking to The Intercept on Thursday, the human rights investigator said he was pained by the death of Weinstein, but noted that there are scores of other innocent people who have been killed in drone strikes.
“Obama’s statement is really moving,” Qadri said. “And we welcome that, I welcome the fact he has done that.” But, he added, “there are hundreds, potentially thousands of others who deserve the same apology.”