The White House was forced to concede on Thursday that it killed two innocent hostages – one American, one Italian – in a drone strike that targeted an al-Qaida compound despite officials not knowing precisely who was in the vicinity…

They mark the first time a US drone strike has inadvertently killed innocent hostages, and have forced the Obama administration to disclose an unprecedented amount of information about what would typically be a highly classified operation.

Among the most startling admissions was the fact the drone strike was authorized by a senior counter-terrorism official without any specific information about who was in the immediate area, which had merely been identified as a compound frequented by al-Qaida leaders.

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Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the fact that the government did not know that the hostages or American Qaeda figures were present showed the problems in the drone war. “These and other recent strikes in which civilians were killed make clear that there is a significant gap between the relatively stringent standards the government says it’s using and the standards that are actually being used,” he said.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, rejected the criticism, saying there was no evidence that the strikes deviated from normal practice, and added that the families would receive financial compensation. Mr. Obama said a full review was underway to identify any changes that should be made to avoid similar errors in the future. “We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Obama did not sign off on this specific strike, aides said, because he has authorized the C.I.A. and military to carry out drone attacks without further consultation if they fit certain criteria. In his comments, Mr. Obama said the operation that killed the two hostages was conducted “fully consistent with the guidelines” for such missions in the region. He said that it was conducted after hundreds of hours of surveillance had convinced American officials that they were targeting an Al Qaeda compound where no civilians were present and that “capturing these terrorists was not possible.”

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At no point during that extended period of surveillance did the U.S. spy agency detect the presence of the two hostages or of any other civilians inside the compound, which they thought was being used by al Qaeda militants, the officials said. U.S. intelligence agencies now believe al Qaeda took extraordinary measures to keep the hostages inside and out of sight.

Along with Messrs. Weinstein and Lo Porto, the strike on the compound killed al Qaeda leader, Ahmed Farouq, another American citizen, the officials said. The CIA had observed what they believed to be a senior al Qaeda member entering the compound in the days just before the strike but intelligence analysts didn’t know that it was Mr. Farouq, the officials said.

Similarly, the CIA didn’t know that Mr. Gadahn was at the compound that it bombed later in the month.

The White House normally would need to seek special legal clearances to directly target American citizens suspected of plotting attacks against the U.S. That process didn’t apply in these cases because Messrs. Farouq and Gadahn weren’t being directly targeted in the operations, officials said.

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Warren Weinstein, who appears to have been the only American citizen held hostage by al Qaeda, was accidentally killed in a U.S. drone strike in January. But it didn’t have to be that way.

A senior U.S. official familiar with the handling of the issue told CNN that the U.S. government made no serious effort to negotiate for the 73-year-old development expert’s release, either directly to al Qaeda or through proxies in Pakistan.

Another senior U.S. official told CNN that Weinstein’s capture by al Qaeda made it hard for the United States to negotiate, even though proxies such as the Pakistani government have links to intermediaries who might have helped.

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“On behalf of myself, our two daughters, our son-in-law, and two grandchildren, we are devastated by this news and the knowledge that my husband will never safely return home. We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through…

“I am disappointed in the government and military in Pakistan. Warren’s safe return should have been a priority for them based on his contributions to their country, but they failed to take action earlier in his captivity when opportunity presented itself, instead treating Warren’s captivity as more of an annoyance than a priority. I hope the nature of our future relationship with Pakistan is reflective of how they prioritize situations such as these.”

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TOURE: The issue of drones, extraordinarily sensitive and complicated political issue; hundreds of innocent civilians killed by drones. But of course, they do allow us to expand the battlefield and attack terrorists where our soldiers cannot go. Keeping our men and women who are soldiers out of harm’s way. So is the collateral damage that is almost inevitable worth it to expand the battlefield?

JIMMY WILLIAMS: I don’t know how put a value on human lives, the two men that were killed unfortunately, on the other hand, we killed two terrorists. And that’s a good thing. The fact they were Americans who turned into terrorists. Look, the politics of this are — are very complicated. the CIA is the one that called this strike. You might remember that two years ago, May, 2013, the president of the United States went to the national defense university and said he was going to move this program from the CIA to the Department of Defense. Guess what — here we are two years later, and that hasn’t happened. I have a feeling that the people in the building behind me are going to want to ask the question why has that not happened. I have a feeling [Congress] will want to ask that question. Because let’s be clear, what happened in January was a massive intelligence failure. A massive intelligence failure. And that’s why these people died needlessly.

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The problem the White House faces is its stubborn insistence that its non-war is being fought with precision. Earnest used that very word repeatedly. But it’s hard to take the claim seriously in light of calculations, like those published in the Guardian last November, that U.S. efforts to kill just 41 leaders of al-Qaeda and other groups caused some 1,147 civilian casualties. Even if we discount that number by half, the tradeoff involved is profoundly troubling.

The sort of war the administration is waging requires extraordinarily accurate intelligence. Earnest said in his briefing that a strike is not permitted unless there is “a near certainty” that no civilians will be harmed. In wartime that standard would be impossible to meet. Claiming that a war isn’t a war doesn’t make meeting the standard any easier.

I am not suggesting that calling the War on Terror a war would make civilian casualties any more justified. But it might force the administration to concede that we simply lack the intelligence resources to establish a guarantee against killing noncombatants. And once the administration admits the inevitability of significant numbers of civilian deaths, we might be able to engage in serious public conversation about the morality of the drone war.

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Today, both the Pentagon and the White House (in the form of Josh Earnest) went out of their way to make sure everyone knows Obama didn’t personally or specifically sign off on the drone attacks that tragically killed two hostages, including an American. 

This is curious. First of all, he’s still responsible, as he himself said in his press conference. He set up and approved a system that lets these attacks happen. There’s something cowardly about honorably taking “full responsibility” in public, and then having your flacks go out and stage whisper “It really wasn’t him.”…

I can’t help but think the implication we’re supposed to take away is that if Obama-The-Righteous had been paying attention, mistakes like this would not have been made. The military bureaucracy has failed Obama, who famously reads Marcus Aurelius as he composes his kill lists. At least he avoided saying that he found out about these attacks by reading about them in the paper, but the upshot is the same. The president doesn’t make mistakes, others make mistakes implementing his will. 

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Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who had joined Paul in that March 2013 filibuster, released a longer statement that called specifically an “investigation” into the killings–something President Obama also called for today.

“Today we received another reminder that radical Islamic terrorism remains a deadly threat to our nation,” Cruz said. “Heidi and I extend our deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones as two more innocent lives–American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto–were claimed by ruthless violent zealots who held them hostage. There should be a swift and thorough investigation into the matter, but make no mistake: responsibility for their deaths lies firmly and unequivocally with the terrorists who kidnapped them and forcibly held them in their command center. We must now honor their memory by reaffirming our resolve to defeat the terrorists who seek to harm Americans and our allies all over the world.”

Cruz’s office also confirmed that Cruz viewed the killings of Farouq and Gadahn as legal acts of war.

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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 Qaeda’s leadership.  And 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.  And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of al Qaeda.  What we did not know, tragically, is that al Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.

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.  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 squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes. 

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JOSH EARNEST: What is permissible in international law and in the protocol that the president established that the U.S. will carry out strikes against al-Qaeda compounds this we can assess with near certainty they are frequented by al-Qaeda leaders. That is the operation that took place. And that operation resulted in the death of al-Qaeda fighters and leaders inside of the compound.

JON KARL: Would it have been illegal to intentionally target those two men?