Western hostages killed in drone strike

I don’t have time to say much about this now, but thought some of y’all might, so I’m posting it:

A U.S. drone strike in January targeting a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan inadvertently killed an American and Italian being held hostage by the group.

The killing of American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto is the first known instance in which the U.S. has accidentally killed a hostage in a drone strike.

The mishap represents a major blow to the Central Intelligence Agency and its covert drone program in Pakistan, which President Barack Obama embraced and expanded after coming to office in 2009….

My first thought — other than a very brief pondering of the WSJ’s choice of the word “mishap” — is to think, Why are we hearing this now? It happened in January. Why now? Why not earlier — or, if there was a good reason bearing on security to hold off, why not even later? Why this moment?

I’ll admit to some suspicion on that point when I read this part of the story:

In addition to the hostages, U.S. intelligence agencies believe American-born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn was killed in January in a separate incident. U.S. intelligence analysts believe he was likely killed in a CIA drone strike that took place after the one that killed Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto….

Remember in the past when an American was deliberately killed in a strike, and it generated a good deal of discussion and controversy? Well, this one will be less noticed, tucked in with the admission of inadvertently killing hostages.

Anyway, have at it…

45 thoughts on “Western hostages killed in drone strike

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I coded that to go under both the “Intelligence” and “Military” categories. But drones are sort of in a zone between those categories, aren’t they? Perhaps I should created a new category…

    And I’m not saying that to air trivia having to do with blog administration. I’m saying the nation still has some figuring out to do about drones in terms of where they fit in our national aims, practices, policies and ethics…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    And a drone with possible radioactive material was found on the Japanese Prime Minister’s roof, and SC prisons are finding it tough to keep out contraband flown in by air….

  3. bud

    Just got word that my daughter is in labor. I’m at home now waiting on additional news to determine when to head down to Savannah. Probably go in the morning. Anyway just need to kill a bit of time while I wait.

    Interesting that Brad’s first thought was “My first thought — other than a very brief pondering of the WSJ’s choice of the word “mishap” — is to think, Why are we hearing this now?” So his actual first thought was the word “mishap”. That was the VERY first thing that came to his mind. I find that fascinating.

    My first thought was a moment of sympathy for the families of these men. Perhaps not a very practical or useful thought. After all thousands of people die needlessly everyday so any sympathy really is pretty much wasted mental effort. But it’s not something that I could avoid if I wanted to. My second thought is just why in heavens name are we still launching these damn drone strikes? The net value has got to be way in the negative by now. The tiny handful of actual terrorists that we kill is miniscule compared to the innocents who die. That can only fuel anti-American sentiments that results in many new converts to the cause. Why is that so hard to understand?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, I was being facetious. My first thought, as I took in the news, was “why now?” Because “January” was one of the first words I took in.

      It only occurred to me to make the crack about “mishap” as I was copying and pasting that passage. I figured someone would say something about it, and I thought I’d beat them to it. Another couple of seconds of thought might have come up with a better wording.

      I’m a word guy, Bud. I’m also a news guy, a hard news guy. And an opinion writer. I see news, I start thinking about policy implications. It’s just the way I am.

      Not that I CAN’T be empathetic; it’s just not usually my first impulse. A newspaperman who melts at sad news will melt into a puddle before the workday is over. A certain callousness is essential to maintaining an even strain and getting the paper out.

      When I react emotionally to something, I usually write about something else. For instance…

      Yesterday, I had an immediate emotional reaction to this photo in The Washington Post:


      Immediately when I saw it — knowing the ways of news organizations — I knew that a picture like that went with a sad story, and it gave my heart a wrench. Look at the angelic little girl on the right. I have three daughters and four granddaughters, and she looked kind of like one of them (my next-to-youngest daughter).

      I knew right away, without reading a word, that something terrible had happened to that little girl. Either to her personally and directly, or something had happened to someone else, and that something would break her heart.

      Look at her. She has this brilliant smile, but at the same time a self-aware one. She’s just old enough to understand smiling for the camera, and it’s like she’s thinking, “I’m going to smile REALLY big to show how much I love my Daddy!” It was the intensity of that smile that made me focus on her more than the other two people in the picture.

      I thought about posting it and commenting on it, but didn’t, in part because I had that emotional reaction. I’d rather write about things I can stand back from, just a bit…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I have an aversion to news stories that cause me to have an emotional reaction. It’s very difficult to deal with them calmly, rationally and professionally…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          That’s one reason news people tend to have an off-putting kind of gallows humor, which can sometimes make us seem like monsters to normal people.

          I’ve never participated in death pools. In fact, if we’ve had them at any newspapers I’ve worked at, people didn’t tell me about them, maybe because they knew I’d react with strong disapproval.

          But I DO do things such as make facetious remarks about a poor word choice in a story about human tragedy…

          You’ll note that most journalists are writing about this in terms of how it will or won’t affect the administration’s drone policy.

          That’s the natural journalistic response. You don’t stand there and think, “Oh, how terrible!” You don’t get anything done that way. You think, how does this bear upon decisions that we all have to make as citizens? And then you start plugging in the policy considerations and going from there…

  4. bud

    This will be grand number 4, but my youngest daughters first. Apparently the labor has been going on for about 22 hours now.

  5. Mark Stewart

    I don’t know girls or long labor. But I love family stories. Best wishes to yours, Bud.

  6. M.Prince

    “Remember in the past when an American was deliberately killed in a strike, and it generated a good deal of discussion and controversy?”

    Actually, the whole range of issues relating to drones still attracts a great deal of interest — though it might take just a tiny bit more digging to find articles about it. David Cole, for instance, has been and continues to write about targeted killings and other related matters.
    Here’s one recent (and quite relevant) example:


  7. bud

    Baby Whitley has arrived! 7lbs 4 oz. All are doing well. Headed to Savannah now. I’ll send Brad some photos when I get a chance.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Look Doug, the White House spokesman made it very clear that Obama The Righteous did not personally sign off on this drone strike. Yes, he approved the structure of the drone program, but this is just another example of the military dopes imperfectly implementing Obama’s will. You see, Obama didn’t mess up, his military did. It’s kind of like when Obama plays golf. He didn’t hit a bad shot – his putter failed him.

      Unlike the low-level morons in the Pentagon or at CIA, Obama reads selected passages from Thucydides while composing his kill lists. 🙂

  8. Mark Stewart

    If one is to believe the left side of Doug’s graphic, 28 “unidentified people” are killed for each intended target.

    Then on the right side, 2950 “militants” have been killed against 307 “civilians”. This is 91% to 9%. Yes, I know I left out the unidentifieds; some would say almost all of these were bad guys and others would say they must be innocent. So those are tabled. This is much lower than historical fratricide rates for the US, BTW.

    One could drill deeper and question whether 168 of the 307 civilians were children (we are assuming that all the children were innocents, right? I am.) – which would be about 55% of the civilians. Awful, but understandable when dealing with terrorists at “home” and on the run and not military units.

    One could also ask how these 393 drone strikes relate to the total number of air to ground attacks that occurred during this same time period. I don’t know what this number is, but would believe that it is certainly in the thousands. So the drone strikes are most likely a very small percentage of the total US airstrikes.

    One could also ask how many soldiers (and civilians) have been killed by IEDs over the same time period? Just for some counter-balancing perspective.

    I heard an interesting bit by someone against drone strikes on NPR yesterday: the “expert” said that drones are, of course, bad and went on to say that there are alternatives – boots on the ground, which is even less appealing to people such as him I would have thought – for example the Pakistani army has killed THOUSANDS of fighters in the autonomous regions over the past year. And my thought was, what’s really the difference – except for how many Pakistani soldiers were killed going after the fighters?

    Or we can just wail about how awful drone strikes are, how “indiscriminate” they are and other such hand ringing.

    1. Doug Ross

      Mark –

      One could ask also whether we are any safer today as a result of the past 14 years of War on Terror. Or whether we have any achievable objective to use drones to kill supposed combatants and definite civilians?

      As for counting IED deaths – if the troops weren’t there, the number would be zero.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        So that’s what you’re suggesting — that the troops not be there? I know you’ll say “that’s right” with regard to Iraq, but what about Afghanistan? Not there, either? So you’re saying the proper response to 9/11 was to do nothing, and hope that nobody does it again?

        Doug, you criticize everything anyone in government DOES, giving the impression that you would do nothing. Is that impression accurate?

        I don’t like drone warfare. It’s not honorable. But I also have to ask myself what the alternatives are. Because you see, I don’t accept the “do nothing” thesis when we’re talking about terrorists.

        If, as I suggested above, “honor” is the primary consideration, then we should always, always send in troops. The bin Laden raid in Abbottabad being the model. But even in that raid, at least one person we can reasonably assume to be a noncombatant (Bushra, the wife of Abrar al-Kuwaiti) was killed.

        Should we not have done that, either? Should we just have left bin Laden alone?

        1. M.Prince

          “I don’t like drone warfare. It’s not honorable.” — Warthen

          Drones ”not honorable“? Sounds as if you’ve been stung by jihadi charges that Americans are ”cowards“ because they use stand-off weapons like these rather than come face their enemies in person. First of all, we probably shouldn’t take our cues on how we fight wars from jihadists. Secondly, I don’t see how drones are as weapons necessarily any less “honorable” than, say, bombs (whether guided or “dumb”) launched, dropped or fired from piloted aircraft — or, for that matter, artillery rounds and the like. On the other hand, it may well be that the tactics used (“signature strikes”) are indeed problematic (as well as possibly counter-productive). Because, let’s be honest with ourselves, a tactic that, for practical reasons, simply defines persons in proximity to “bad guys” as themselves “bad guys,” as happens with this sort of tactic, expresses no greater concern for innocent lives than do those who practice beheading. Just because our weapons are more technologically advanced does not necessarily make us morally superior or even less brutal. And with respect to “honor,” it may do us good to recall what Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff has to say on the subject:

          “Can honour set a leg? No.
          Or an arm? No,
          or take away the grief of a wound? No.
          Honour hath no skill in surgery, then?
          What is honour?
          A word.
          What is in that word honour?
          What is that honour?
          A trim reckoning!
          Who hath it?
          He that died o’ Wednesday.
          Doth he feel it? No.
          Doth he hear it? No.
          ‘Tis insensible, then.
          Yea, to the dead.
          But will it not live with the living?
          Detraction will not suffer it.
          Therefore, I’ll none of it.
          Honour is a mere ‘scutcheon.
          And so ends my catechism.”

          No, Sir John may not be an “honorable” man. But his opinions on honor may nonetheless serve as a corrective to the illusions that an infatuation with honor can give rise to.

        2. Bryan Caskey

          “I don’t like drone warfare. It’s not honorable.”

          I agree with M. Prince, here. Yeah. I know. Stop the presses, right? That should probably make you stop and think about your position a little more, if nothing else.

          You’re a word guy, Brad. What exactly do you mean when you say that drone warfare is not “honorable”? It can’t be that you mean it’s not a “fair fight”. The whole point in warfare is to leverage your advantages to do the most damage to the opposing forces while suffering as few casualties as possible. If you find yourself in a fair fight, you’ve done something wrong. However, you already know this, so I don’t think this is what you mean. I’m sure that you aren’t advocating for us to use Napoleonic tactics of massed infantry in frontal assaults.

          Again, agreeing with what M. Prince said, I don’t see drone attacks to be fundamentally any different than a long range artillery strike, a long range missile strike, or any number of similar sorts of “stand-off” weapons that allow a soldier to do damage to a target while staying out of bayonet range. Now, its possible that because we have gotten to a point where there is so little (essentially zero) chance of casualties on our side, we’re starting to get a little fast-and-loose with who and what we target, so maybe that’s what you’re getting at. But that’s really decision-making, and not the nature of the warfare itself, unless your saying that it’s impossible to conduct drone warfare in an honorable way…which seems a stretch.

          Or, maybe your saying that it isn’t honorable because we haven’t formally declared war, and we’re engaging in a sort of undeclared ad hoc style campaign that feels more like whack-a-mole than say, the battle of Iwo Jima.

          It can’t be the civilian casualties, though, because there are always civilian casualties in war. That’s one of the reasons that war is such a terrible thing. Non-combatant casualties are inherent in war going back a long way. As long as we’re not intentionally targeting non-combatants, I think we’re on fairly solid ground. I know that some people’s mileage may vary on this point, but that’s kind of where I am.

          In general, I think that anytime M. Prince and I agree on something, we all need to take a step back. Accordingly, I’d like to hear you expand on this statement. What is it in “drone warfare” that you object to, and where does it fit into your conception of “honor”?

          Your additional thoughts would be well received.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Only facing your enemy with a naked blade is honorable. And killing with the point lacks artistry.

            But seriously, I did mean that it’s not a fair fight

            Also, I worry about the precedent it sets. We currently have a technological advantage over our enemies. We can, without warning and without a declaration of war or permission of the country in which our enemy is hiding, employ a deus ex machina device to strike him dead out of a clear blue sky, like thunderbolts from Zeus.

            It worries me that this is something that could be used against us in assymetrical warfare. No, it wouldn’t be as easy to employ for an enemy that lacks satellites and such, but drones could be used by low-tech enemies as a terror weapon. We would surely denounce it as a dirty, cowardly way to fight.

            And yes, if you’re a military commander, your job is to use whatever advantage you may have to kill the enemy while preserving your own troops. But I can sympathize, just a little bit, with the Germans who complained that we Americans used our advantages to kill them without their having a chance to fight. Our practice in WWII was, if our infantry came up against a machine gun, to back up and let air support (or artillery) take it out. I mean, I’m glad we won without more Americans having to die, but the Germans had a point in complaining about the unfairness of that.

            But I also mean it’s less honorable because the more you use technology to protect your own people, the more likely you are to kill civilians. Artillery, air strikes and drone attacks are all less precise than, say, commandos with small arms.

            They also encourage political cowardice on the part of our leaders, which in the long run can lead to more deaths, not fewer. When an American leader gets used to no-cost (in terms of U.S. casualties) options, the more likely he is to rule out higher-cost options, even when they’re necessary. For instance, the more likely he is to say “no boots on the ground” before the fight is even engaged. Which can work out OK sometimes, as with Clinton in the Balkans, but other times can be unwise.

            Back to the main point: I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use drones to take out terrorists. I’m just saying that I’m not going to sugarcoat the fact that it’s no-cost killing, and that there are reasons to be less than proud of it. Not that terrorists ever gave THEIR targets a chance…

            1. M.Prince

              Frankly, I think it’s best if we leave the notion of ”honor“ out of discussions about war and how we fight it. War may be at times necessary, but there is no good in it. While there are actions of individuals in time of war that may be thought honorable, there is no “honor” in war.

            2. Brad Warthen Post author

              I’ll have to disagree with you there, M. Saying “there is no honor in war” gets dangerously close to “there is no honor in the military,” which gained currency with the growth of the antiwar movement back in the Vietnam period.

              And I happen to believe that there are few things in life more honorable than the willingness to lay your own life on the line in service to the society in which you live — whether it’s as a soldier, a cop, a firefighter or what have you.

              Honor’s important to me. It was very important to me as a working journalist all those years — serving my fellow citizens by informing them, with accuracy and fairness. But being a journalist doesn’t carry nearly the honor of serving in uniform, which is why I’ll always regret that I couldn’t do that.

              One can serve honorably in all sorts of professions. A shopkeeper can provide a great service to his or her community, providing needed goods at fair prices, yet high enough to provide employment, yet another service. And the honor in being a doctor, nurse or medical technician — or the guy who mops the hospital floor — is obvious.

              But the honor inherent in military service is, too.

            3. Bryan Caskey

              “But I can sympathize, just a little bit, with the Germans who complained that we Americans used our advantages to kill them without their having a chance to fight.”

              These would be the same Germans who developed the world’s first long range guided ballistic missile (the V-2), the first selective fire assault rifle, which was the precursor to the AK-47 (the StG-44), the best all-around tank of WWII (the Mark V), oh, and the world’s first jet fighter aircraft.

              I don’t know which Germans you’ve been talking to, but if they’ve got you feeling sympathetic for them because of our superior technology, they’ve got you snowed. If they hadn’t messed up the Battle of Britain by diverting to non-military targets (e.g. London) and if they had left Russia alone for a little while longer, they would have very likely won the war.

            4. Mark Stewart

              Even Jack Aubrey fought with the advantage he created or exploited.

              The goal of war is to end it as quickly as possible. The longer wars go on the casualties grow exponentially.

              The only place for honor in war is how we conduct ourselves after the fighting is done. Honor is important for our humanity when dealing with captives and other “defeateds”.

            5. Brad Warthen Post author

              You know, a lot of my antiwar friends see statements like that from me and want to pigeonhole me as one of those glory hogs of an earlier era who saw war as a glorious adventure, only to have their foolish sentiments utterly destroyed on Flander’s fields.

              I’m not. War is horrible, and a cesspool of moral ambivalence. One does horrible things in the name of preventing even worse things. And the vast majority of people who actually get onto the front lines, kill the enemy and live to come home are scarred for life by the experience. While I regret that I could never serve, I am very grateful that it has never been my duty to kill another human being. I think it might destroy me. It’s much easier for me to stand back and excuse others for killing in combat than it would ever be for myself. I’m pretty sure I would bitterly denounce myself for even trying.

              But because, as you say, “War may be at times necessary,” it is incumbent on us to honor those who have immersed themselves in that cesspool of horror on our behalf, and honorably carried out their duties.

              War is horrible, often horrible beyond words. But it’s wrong to say there’s no honor in it.

            6. M.Prince

              Folks are continually throwing up the fallacy that those who deride war are deriding the soldiers who fight it when it is the warrior who hates war most. (“Don’t talk to me about atrocities in war; all war is an atrocity.” – Lord Kitchener; “There is no honor in war. There is no glory or prestige. There is just a lot of very dangerous situations and very difficult choices.” – Jon Davis, Marine veteran) I did say that there are individual acts of honor in war, but there is no debating that war itself, though sometimes necessary, is a human activity with no honor in it. War involves killing and killing is in no way honorable, even though it may be necessary and done bravely. Sir John’s quote is a reminder that we can be too accepting of the illusion that war is honorable.

          2. Brad Warthen Post author

            All of that said…

            There’s an interesting piece in the WSJ this morning headlined, “New Way the U.S. Projects Power Around the Globe: Commandos.”

            I don’t know in how many countries we’re deployed drones, but in the past year, we’ve had special-operations boots on the ground in, count ’em, 81 countries.

            Yes, most of them have been there to train the locals to fight so we don’t have to, but still… it indicates that we’re far from depending upon drones as the one arrow in our quiver. And I find that reassuring…

        1. Doug Ross

          You make the assumption that there has been another 9/11 planned. Can you back that up? Can you identify the direct threats against the U.S. that have been thwarted in the past 14 years?

          As for killing bin Laden’s wife, I would say what any person of faith should say: innocent lives cannot be part of the equation. Never. What moral calculus is involved in accepting trading the life of one evil person for one innocent? What is your ratio of acceptable innocent casualties? Would you have blown up the house knowing there were children there? How about if there was one American hostage there? Sure, we all understand that innocent non-American lives are worth less than red blooded American lives, but how much less?

          I believe in peace. So shoot me. Wait, don’t do that…

        2. Kathryn Fenner

          No more 9/11s does not add up to safer in any way. Post hoc fallacy in the extreme. There was a tsunami in the Indian Ocean after we instituted the Patriot Act. Ergo, we must rescind the Patriot Act, because it causes tsunamis.
          9/11 was a coincidence of several factors, chief of which was the perpetrators, of course, but also poor cooperation among intelligence agencies, lax security at smaller airports (Portland International Jetport) and lesser border crossings with Canada, the inability of passengers to understand that someone would take control of a plane to commit suicide as well as homicide, and not just to hijack it for ransom, etc.
          You cannot draw conclusions from the nonoccurrence of additional instances of extremely rare, one-off events.

  9. Kathryn Fenner

    To pick apart this, first you have to figure that there are bad situations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, etc. If we assume that the US must do something about these situations for moral reasons, or ought to if only for pragmatic reasons, then what is the most effective method to deal with them? Diplomacy doesn’t seem to go far. Aid? that seems to be fraught with corruption, etc.
    So IF we assume military involvement, then how to we maximize our effectiveness in neutralizing bad guys while minimizing deaths of non-bad guys? Capture just seems to yield future hostage bargaining chips. So, we assume that killing bad guys is best. I’d like to know whether boots on the ground or in planes, who are in harm’s way, but volunteered to be there, but who minimize collateral damage (true?) vs. putting civilians in harm’s way, some of whom are being used as human shields, but not risking our troops is better. I do not know whether drones yield more collateral damage than other military methods. Anybody?

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Surely there is some sort of data analysis, aside from the political one that American lives matter more than foreign ones, especially brown foreign ones.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Right. Which is why I recoil from situations in which we see a clear U.S. interest, but we don’t want to put boots on the ground, preferring to let the natives bear the casualties.

          1. M.Prince

            In the eyes of some – especially those who let their Wilsonian impulses get the best of them – it’s easy to see “US interests” practically everywhere. And, I might add, it has become almost a banality to point out that it is frequently those who feel themselves cheated of the chance to serve who are eagerest to see others sent off to war.

            1. Bryan Caskey

              I saw the Wilsonian Impulses open up for the Kings of Leon at the Township Auditorium in 2006.

  10. M.Prince

    “I can sympathize, just a little bit, with the Germans who complained that we Americans used our advantages to kill them without their having a chance to fight.” — Warthen

    I’m quite familiar with what you’re describing. It’s the wartime German generation’s own particular form of self-pity and you should be wary of falling for it. (It’s not entirely unlike the self-pity – the self-pity of the loser – that gripped the South after the Civil War and which gave rise to the Lost Cause mythology.) Ask yourself this: how many Germans felt the way you described when it was they who had the advantage – against the Poles, the French, the BEF or the Russians? Very few.

  11. emma

    which is even less appealing to people such as him I would have thought – for example the Pakistani army has killed THOUSANDS of fighters in the autonomous regions over the past year. And my thought was, what’s really the difference – except for how many Pakistani soldiers were killed going after the fighters?

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