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Obama takes 'full responsibility' for deaths of two hostages

President Obama on Thursday acknowledged that the U.S. killed two innocent hostages in counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.
 
Obama expressed his “deepest apologies” to the families of the two hostages, one American and one Italian.
 
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“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes can occur,” Obama said at a press conference at the White House Thursday morning.

“As president and commander in chief I take full responsibility for all counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovani.”
 
Warren Weinstein, an American held by al Qaeda since 2011, and Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto, a hostage since 2012, were killed in the attacks. That attack also killed Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al Qaeda leader, the White House said in a statement released minutes before Obama spoke.
 
"The operation targeted an al-Qa’ida-associated compound, where we had no reason to believe either hostage was present, located in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement.
 
"No words can fully express our regret over this terrible tragedy."

A separate strike in January also killed Adam Gadahn, an American who served as a prominent spokesman for the group and went by the nickname "Azzam the American," according to the White House. Earnest's statement added that both al Qaeda leaders were not specifically targeted in the strike, because the U.S. "did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations."

While the administration typically clears the targeting of an American citizen abroad with the Justice Department, as it did with the drone attack on U.S.-born al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, that may not have happened in this situation because the men were not specifically targeted.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her panel would intensify an ongoing review of the January strikes that led to the deaths of U.S. citizens. 

"We should also again review all procedures and safeguards to make sure every measure is taken to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians," she said in a statement. 

Gadahn had been seen as a major propaganda tool for al Qaeda, representing a member of the American enemy seeing the error of his ways and joining the fight.

Obama said that he spoke to Weinstein’s wife and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Wednesday to share the news.

“As a husband and as a father, I cannot imagine begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today,” Obama said with an audible sigh.

“I realize there are no words that can ever equal their loss, I know there is nothing I can ever say or do to ease their heartache.” 

The White House did not confirm the nature of the operation, although the Wall Street Journal reported that the four men were killed in drone strikes. That revelation could restart the debate over the administration’s drone program.

The White House stressed that strikes did not target Gadahn and Farouq because existing protocols require knowledge of an "imminent threat" to target and kill U.S. citizens.

Obama added that he ordered the information to be unclassified and released publicly once he learned the hostages were mistakenly killed.

“I did so because the Weinstein and Lo Porto families deserve to know the truth,” he said.

“And I did so because, even as certain aspects of our national security have to remain secret in order to succeed, the United States is a democracy committed to openness, in good times and in bad.”

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that hundreds of hours surveillance on the al Qaeda compound, including near continuous surveillance in the days leading up to the operations, led to the attack that killed an American and Italian hostage.

Earnest said the surveillance footage led U.S. officials to determine with "near certainty" the facility was used by al Qaeda leaders and that no civilians would be harmed in an operation. The assessment was clearly incorrect, Earnest said. There will also be an independent inspector general review of the incident as well as a separate White House review.

Earnest confirmed that Obama did not "specifically sign off" on the January strikes that killed the two hostages and two U.S. citizens who were al Qaeda members.

He explained that they were "regular" operations that were not intended to target U.S. citizens.

The White House spokesman would not confirm whether the counterterrorism operations were drone strikes, what day the attacks occurred and when the intelligence community determined that Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed.

Earnest added that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families will be compensated by the U.S. government. 

Weinstein's family praised the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Maryland lawmakers for their efforts to free him from captivity. But it said assistance from "other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing."

"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," Weinstein's wife, Elaine, said in a statement on behalf of the family.
 
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday he had not yet spoken to Obama about the death of the hostages. But he acknowledged that he had been briefed by administration officials "prior to public disclosure" Thursday morning.
 
The Speaker declined to comment on specific aspects of the fatal drone strike.
 
"I'm not going to put myself in the position where I'm going to disclose classified information," Boehner said at a news conference on Thursday.
 
Obama's decision to order an independent review into the incident is "entirely appropriate," Boehner added.
 
"We need all the facts – for the families and so that we can make sure nothing like this ever happens again in our efforts to keep Americans safe.”
 
—Jordan Fabian and Scott Wong contributed to this story, which was last updated at 1:45 p.m.