The Obama administration's drone war came under unusual scrutiny last week after the White House revealed that a strike earlier this year killed two innocent Westerners.
Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian, were both being held hostage in Pakistan. Meanwhile, the CIA was targeting a compound in that country that it believed to be inhabited by al-Qaeda operatives. "At no time during the weeks of surveillance in the Shawal Valley did analysts detect any signs that the militants were holding Mr. Weinstein or Giovanni Lo Porto," The New York Times reported, citing American officials. "It was not until after the drone strike that CIA analysts—poring over drone video feeds, satellite data, electronic intercepts of cellphone conversations and informants’ reports—determined that six people had been hauled from the rubble and that there were six graves," rather than just the four militants that they had mistakenly believed to be alone.
I've long argued that the Obama administration should declare a moratorium on drone strikes pending numerous, significant reforms to the program. But for those who support the drone war, I don't see how a strike gets more defensible than this one. It is tragic that two innocents were killed. But if the U.S. is going to use lethal force against al-Qaeda at all, the risk of civilian casualties cannot be totally eliminated. Unless the CIA is lying, its operatives watched this structure for weeks. Their certainty that it was an al-Qaeda compound was vindicated by the presence of the hostages. And one can imagine extremely careful surveillance missing the presence of two civilians if they were tied up and confined inside for weeks on end.