WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday that recent U.S. strikes that killed Americans were consistent with guidelines for counterterrorism efforts, and experts say the attacks appear to have been within the bounds of U.S. law despite what the president called "deadly mistakes."
The White House said U.S. officials had been unaware that two hostages, an American and an Italian, or that two American al-Qaida operatives were present when the attacks were conducted in January. In a 2011 case, the United States specifically targeted an American, resulting in a lawsuit against the government that was later dismissed.
"I don't initially see legal problems," said Chris Edelson, an assistant professor of government at American University and author of "Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror." ''If the attacks were carried out against al-Qaida, they were legitimate under U.S. law."
Congress gave the president authority to carry out military action against al-Qaida in 2001, after the September 11 attacks. The attacks revealed Thursday were carried out in Pakistan by the CIA, and some have long questioned whether the CIA can impose lethal force.
But the bigger questions the deaths raise are about the quality of U.S. intelligence surrounding drone strikes and whether Obama is living up to his standards for avoiding the loss of innocent lives. "Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set," Obama said in a May 2013 speech at National Defense University.
At least 20 civilians, including six children, have reportedly died in U.S. drone strikes since that speech, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based group that has been critical of drone strikes. The group says all were in Yemen, as part of at least 31 U.S. drone strikes that have killed at least 153 people.
After Obama announced the near-certainty standard, the frequency of strikes dropped sharply and the use of so-called signature strikes — attacks aimed at large groups of armed men who fit the profile of militants but whose names were not all known to the CIA — was curtailed. But White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the targets in January were the compounds used by al-Qaida leaders, not any individuals specifically.
Obama said he took "full responsibility" for the counterterror missions that took the lives of hostages Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, both captured years ago by al-Qaida while working on aid missions in Pakistan. Obama promised a full review to try to prevent similar deaths in the future.
"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. "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-Qaida 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-Qaida. What we did not know, tragically, is that al-Qaida was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound."
The White House also said the administration was not aware that the al-Qaida leaders that were the targets of the strikes included two Americans, Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn.
Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, said it's remarkable that "the U.S. quite literally didn't know who it was killing."
"Everybody understands that if you are going to use lethal force, there are going to be civilian casualties," Jaffer said in a telephone interview. "When in strike after strike after strike there are civilian casualties, it's very hard to understand how that record can be squared with what the president described in 2013."
Jaffer represented the families of two other Americans killed in 2011 by U.S. drone strikes in the lawsuit alleging top U.S. national security officials violated constitutional rights to due process by authorizing the strikes without a trial. A strike successfully targeted Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric born in New Mexico, and also killed American Samir Khan. Another strike killed Awlaki's teenage son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. The administration said the deaths of the teenager and Khan were unintentional.
Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/nedrapickler