WASHINGTON — — When the U.S. military targeted a suspected al-Qaida compound on the lawless border between Pakistan and Afghanistan in January, President Barack Obama said Thursday, intelligence officials didn't know the group was holding an aid worker from Rockville there.
Warren Weinstein, a government contractor who was captured by al-Qaida in August 2011, was killed three months ago in a U.S. drone strike, Obama said from the White House. It was the first acknowledgment of his death and of the United States' role in it.
Weinstein was focused on economic development projects in the region when he was captured in August 2011. Elaine Weinstein, who was informed of her husband's death Wednesday, said no words could "do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through."
"We do not yet fully understand all of the facts surrounding Warren's death but we do understand that the U.S. government will be conducting an independent investigation of the circumstances," she said in a statement. "We look forward to the results of that investigation."
Obama said he spoke Wednesday with the Weinstein family and took responsibility for the botched operation.
"It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorism specifically, mistakes — and sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur," he said Thursday at the White House. "I profoundly regret what happened."
The White House said an Italian man who had been held since 2012, Giovanni Lo Porto, and an American believed to be an al-Qaida leader, Ahmed Farouq, were also killed.
Another suspected American militant, Adam Gadahn, died in a separate attack. The White House said the two men were not targeted.
The White House declined to give the date of the strike that killed Weinstein. But al-Qaida said Farouq was killed Jan. 15, according to the Associated Press.
The deaths have sparked fresh questions over the Obama administration's secretive use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Officials say unmanned aircraft help them hunt down terrorists without risking U.S. troops, but critics point to the high numbers of civilian casualties.
Weinstein worked for U.S. Agency for International Development contractor J.E. Austin Associates of Arlington, Va. People who answered the phone at the company Thursday said they could not comment.
Weinstein, 73, had a 25-year career in international development, according to a biography on an archived version of the company's website. He held a doctorate in international law and economics from Columbia University, was a Fulbright scholar and was fluent in six languages.
Elaine Weinstein said her family had hoped the U.S. and Pakistani governments would secure his release.
She thanked Maryland Rep. John Delaney, Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, and "specific officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation" for "their relentless efforts to free my husband."
"Unfortunately," she added, "the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. government was inconsistent and disappointing."
She said that "those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility" for his death. But she also expressed 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."
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon had been crafting a plan to free Weinstein, but it was never executed. The California Republican blamed bureaucratic infighting.
"Warren Weinstein did not have to die," Hunter said. "His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity."
Alan Gross, a USAID contractor from Potomac who was freed in December after five years in a Cuban prison, said on Twitter that the government should do more for Americans who put themselves at risk working abroad.
Members of Congress from Maryland offered little information about any efforts the Obama administration made to bring Weinstein home. Delaney, Weinstein's congressman, said the government could respond to hostage cases more thoroughly.
"It just feels like we're not doing as good a job as we could to get these people home," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "I don't blame the individuals who are trying to do it, but I feel like the government bureaucracy is getting in the way of finding these people."
Delaney said the government needs a point person who can work across multiple federal agencies — "someone who wakes up every day and says, 'This is my mission, and no one can tell me I can't get what I need.'"
Mikulski wrote to the White House in June to ask about resources that were being dedicated to return government contractors such as Weinstein and Gross. At the time, the administration had recently announced the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held in Afghanistan by a local affiliate of the Taliban.
"I deeply respect our nation's enduring commitment to bring all military prisoners of war home," Mikulski wrote. "However, I am concerned that the same energy and resources that we rightfully put into our nation's prisoners of war are not being extended to our nation's civil servants and contractors."
Obama said intelligence available to American decision-makers — including hundreds of hours of surveillance video — did not indicate that any civilians were present in the compound, or that it would have been feasible to capture the targets of the attack.
"Our initial assessment indicates that this operation was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region, which has been our focus for years because it is the home of al-Qaida's leadership," Obama said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said her staff has been reviewing the strike. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he would also investigate.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is weighing a presidential run, called for a debate on drone strikes.
"There will and should be much discussion in the coming days and weeks about examining the military and intelligence parameters that need to define our nation's use of drones," O'Malley said.
The United States has used drones to target Americans in the past. Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born cleric who was a senior figure in al-Qaida's branch in Yemen, was killed in a 2011 strike. His son was killed a few weeks later.
Thirty-eight Westerners, including 10 Americans, have been killed in drone strikes, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The organization maintains a database of incidents based on publicly available information.
In other cases, suspected terrorists have been captured and brought back to the United States to face trial. Among the most recent was Muhanad Mahmoud Al Farekh, who was brought from Pakistan to face charges of supporting terrorists.
Sarah Kreps, a professor of government at Cornell University, said there are indications the Obama administration has been more careful about how it uses the strikes in recent years. She pointed to data from the United States and the United Nations and statements by officials that suggest civilian casualties from the attacks are down dramatically.
But it's still troubling, she said, that the administration is using drones outside of war zones at all. She said officials have stretched the doctrine of self-defense to justify the attacks, saying the people that have been killed represented an imminent threat to the United States.
"The administration has never defined what imminent means," Kreps said.