Heartbreaking news, and a demonstration of the limit of remote-control warfare. The US drone program in Pakistan inadvertently killed two Western hostages being held by al-Qaeda, including an American whose family had repeatedly appealed for his release based on his age and health:

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, senior Obama administration officials said.

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.

The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program which, according to human rights groups, endangers civilians. U.S. officials say the strikes are needed to combat al Qaeda. To mitigate the risks, officials say the CIA won’t launch missiles at a suspected target if they know civilians are present.

The White House released a statement a few moments ago expressing its “tremendous sorrow” over the collateral deaths of the hostages. Obama has declassified the incident in order to allow scrutiny of the operation and its outcomes.

Undoubtedly Congress will want to probe it, but it’s likely not going to result in many changes, except perhaps undermine the value of hostage-taking by terrorists. Whether we admit it or not, drone warfare creates collateral damage, mostly to Pakistanis in that region, which is why it’s so tremendously unpopular. We try to mitigate that, but that only goes so far, and it depends on reliable intelligence — of which we get much less these days, thanks to shrinking footprints in Afghanistan and our exit from Iraq.  Drone warfare creates a lot less collateral damage than, say, shock and awe campaigns, but war is war and it’s impossible to get strikes so surgical that it doesn’t impact non-combatants when the terrorists hide and operate among non-combatants. In fact, that’s their entire purpose of doing so — to keep Western militaries from being able to bring force to bear against them.

The White House also announced that drone strikes had inadvertently killed two Americans working for al-Qaeda, including one infamous propagandist, Adam Gadahn:

We also believe two other Americans were recently killed in U.S. Government counterterrorism operations in the same region. We have concluded that Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al-Qa’ida leader, was killed in the same operation that resulted in the deaths of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto. We have also concluded that Adam Gadahn, an American who became a prominent member of al-Qa’ida, was killed in January, likely in a separate U.S. Government counterterrorism operation. While both Farouq and Gadahn were al-Qa’ida members, neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations.

We hadn’t heard much from Gadahn over the last few years. Supposedly, he fell out of favor with AQ leadership and got relegated to lower-echelon duties, but Gadahn never gave up his war against his country. That’s one score settled, however inadvertently it might have been accomplished.

Obama will speak live at 10 am. Watch it here: