President Barack Obama expressed his "deepest apologies" Thursday for the accidental killing of a Maryland man and an Italian who were being held hostage by al Qaeda in a U.S. drone strike this year.
Warren Weinstein and Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto were killed in U.S. operations in January in a border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. recently concluded.
"I profoundly regret what happened," President Barack Obama said from the White House briefing room. "We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy and any changes that should be made."
Information about the counterterrorism strike was classified until now, but Obama directed that it be declassified and shared with the American people, the White House said in a statement.
"It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war, generally, and in our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — and sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur," Obama said. "But 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 to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
Weinstein, an aid worker from Rockville, Maryland, was kidnapped in August 2011 after gunmen tricked his guards and broke into his home in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
Weinstein was the country director in Pakistan for J.E. Austin Associates, a U.S.-based development contractor that advises different Pakistani business and government sectors.
In 2013, Weinstein appealed to Obama for help. Weinstein said in a video that he felt "totally abandoned and forgotten.'' It was impossible to tell whether Weinstein's statement was scripted by his captors.
Weinstein's family expressed their "devastation" in a statement released shortly after the president's briefing.
"...[T]here are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through," the statement read. "But those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility."
During his press briefing Thursday, Obama defended the legality of the January drone strike and said there had been no information suggesting the hostages were at that location.
"Based on the intelligence that we had obtained at the time, including hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this was an al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,'' Obama said in remarks from the White House. "And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al Qaeda.'' The White House says it also believes two other Americans were recently killed in a counterterrorism operation in the same region.
The White House believes that Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al Qaeda leader, was killed in the same January operation that resulted in the hostages' deaths. And it has also concluded that American Adam Gadahn was likely killed in a separate U.S. mission.
The president made no mention of Farouq and Gadahn. Instead, he focused his remarks on Weinstein and Lo Porto.
Obama expressed regret for the deaths of the two men and offered his "grief and condolences" to their families.
"I realize there are no words that can ever equal their loss," he said.
Local leaders expressed their sympathy for Weinstein's family.
"The death of Warren Weinstein is a tragic loss for us all," Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen said in a statement in part. "My heart goes out to his family, who never gave up their tireless efforts to bring Warren home."
"Warren Weinstein represented the best of MD & America," former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley posted on Twitter. "My heart goes out to the Weinstein & Lo Porto families."