As Jim laid out, yesterday President Obama admitted that we killed two hostages, including American Warren Weinstein, in a drone operation in the Af-Pak border in January. In that same strike, we killed American citizen Ahmed Faruq, though he was not specifically targeted, Administration sources assure us. We also killed Adam Gadahn in an apparently unrelated strike, though we weren’t targeting him either, Administration sources assure us.
But I want to point to something rather remarkable in the language the Administration used yesterday to discuss this.
For years, the government has used the rationale that if an American is “sitting next to a baddie” then he becomes acceptable collateral damage in a drone strike.
That’s the rationale they gave when they killed Kamal Derwish in 2002: they were not targeting Derwish, they were targeting Abu Ali al-Harethi, but Derwish — far more threatening to the US at that moment because of his presumed role in recruiting Muslims in Lackawanna, NY — just was unlucky enough to be sitting next to him.
That’s the rationale they gave when they first missed Anwar al-Awlaki on December 24, 2009, a day before the government decided he had gone operational but at a time when Pete Hoekstra was making his continued existence an embarrassing issue for the Obama Administration. The Administration hadn’t been targeting Awlaki, they explained, they were instead targeting Nasir al-Wuhayshi and some other AQAP leaders, and Awlaki just happened to be present.
That’s the rationale they gave when they killed Samir Khan. He just happened to be sitting in the car when the CIA finally scorched Awlaki.
And that’s the rationale they gave when they killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki: They weren’t targeting him, they were targeting Ibrahim al-Banna, though al-Banna turned out not even to be present.
That’s the rationale they gave, years later, when they admitted to killing Jude Kenan Mohammed: he was killed in a signature strike targeting the group he was in as a whole.
Never mind that in a number of these cases — the first Awlaki strike and the one that killed his son — there’s reason to believe they were specifically targeted. Never mind that in the case of Derwish and Khan knowing insiders wink winked that the government knew full well they’d be killing these men too when they struck the other target. The excuse has been — with the exception of the pursuit of Anwar al-Awlaki — that they were targeting another person (another known person, with the exception of the Jude Mohammed strike), and the American just happened to die as collateral damage.
But yesterday, that rationale changed.
Now, the government wasn’t so much targeting a person, but a compound, something that Josh Earnest was quite insistent on in his press conference yesterday.
Q Thanks, Josh. Let’s start just with some of the facts of what happened, to the extent that you can discuss them. How many other people were killed in these two strikes, either local civilians or militants?
EARNEST: Josh, I won’t be able to provide specific numbers on this. I can tell you that in the specific strike that resulted in the death of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto, there was one other al Qaeda leader who was among those that was killed. That is the — Ahmed Faruq, the American citizen al Qaeda leader. This was a strike against an al Qaeda compound, and the result was the death of at least one al Qaeda leader.
I can tell you that the assessment that we have right now does not raise questions about additional civilian loss of life. Again, the reason for that is that the standard that was in place and, to the best of our knowledge, was closely followed by our counterterrorism professionals was to adhere to this near-certainty standard. And that near-certainty standard applied to two things.
The first is near certainty that this was an al Qaeda compound that was used by al Qaeda leaders; that turned out to be true. That assessment did turn out to be correct. The other near-certainty assessment was that no civilians would be harmed if this operation were carried out. Unfortunately, that was not correct, and the operation led to this tragic, unintended consequence.