Web Video: ‘Intelligence failures’ led to accidental drone deaths, says former counterterror center director

Apr. 24, 2015 AT 11:48 a.m. EDT

Revelations about the accidental deaths of two hostages by a U.S. drone in Pakistan raises questions about American war tactics and casualties. Gwen Ifill leads a discussion with Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal, Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.



GWEN IFILL: Today’s announcement on the accidental killing of two hostages in Pakistan raises questions about the tactics and the casualties of war.

To explore those, we turn to Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, who was closely involved in the search for Warren Weinstein, Michael Leiter, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center during the first Obama administration. He’s now with a national security technology company. And Wall Street Journal national security reporter Adam Entous.

Congressman Delaney, you were very involved with the family in the effort to find Warren Weinstein. What can you tell us about that?

REP. JOHN DELANEY, (D) Maryland: Well, so, obviously, today is a very sad day for the whole family. And I have had the privilege of getting to know Elaine and the daughter, Warren’s daughters, over the last several years, as we worked together to try to get Warren home.

And they’re a great family. They have been very strong through this whole process, which, as you can imagine, has been really hard. But they have also been determined and they have been smart about things to do to both shine attention on Warren’s case and to make sure our government is doing everything they can, which is where I was helping them.

And our job really was to make sure all of the resources of our government, which, as we all know, are significant, technological and intelligence resources, are being brought to bear on getting Warren home. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. It’s my opinion that we need to do more. We should have done more on Warren’s case. And we should do more for all of these hostages, because this is a complicated business. We have a lot of capabilities.

Men and women who work on bringing our hostages home are terrific people. They work really hard, but it’s not clear that things are coordinated as well as they should be, or that we’re actually accessing some of our partner nations’ capabilities as extensively as we should. We really should be demanding upon these nations, many of which we provide enormous financial support to, to help us in this effort to bring our hostages home like Warren.

But it’s a really sad day. I mean, it’s heartbreaking for the family.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Leiter, how do mistakes like this happen?

MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director of the U.S. Government’s National Counterterrorism Center : Well, I think the president actually captured it fairly well and in simple terms.

In the fog of war, you can have real tragedy. And as we have increased — as the president has increased the pace of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere, we moved to what are known as signature strikes, and that’s not knowing exactly who is there, but knowing that it’s a signature of an al-Qaida operation.

And, unfortunately, in this case and in previous cases, we target those spots, even though there’s a near certainty that there are not noncombatants or U.S. persons there. But near certainty is not absolute certainty, and intelligence can be imperfect. It was in this case. And when you’re going after al-Qaida aggressively, these things, unfortunately, can happen.

GWEN IFILL: It wasn’t that long ago that we heard about Kayla Mueller, who was also being held, different circumstances, but also killed unintentionally.

I wonder whether, if you’re taken hostage now in this region by al-Qaida, if there is any chance ever of getting out. It doesn’t seem like it ends well anymore.

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, it has ended well in some cases, but the fact is, for terrorists, kidnapping is a wonderful force. It forces the U.S. potentially to engage. It gives them an enormous propaganda value.

So there are lots of places, whether it’s Syria, or Iraq, or Yemen, or Pakistan, where Americans are vulnerable. And putting SEALs and special operations forces on the ground to try to rescue them, one, endangers the hostages and, two, obviously puts our people on the ground in danger. So this is a very tricky operation wherever it happens.

GWEN IFILL: Adam Entous, this apparently happened in January. We’re not precisely sure when or where. But why are we just hearing about it now?

ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal: Well, it took a while for the administration to get intelligence that indicated that, in this strike, which they assumed was like any other strike — they thought they had hit their target, which was an al-Qaida leader, who they didn’t know who it was, but they knew — they thought it was an al-Qaida leader.

It took a while for them to pick up intelligence, probably signals intelligence, so they overheard conversations in which they — in which al-Qaida members were discussing the death of the hostages. At that point, they needed to basically go through all the intelligence that they had gathered, other drone feeds that they had, to try to piece together what exactly happened.

This is, obviously, a very difficult thing to do. It’s not like we put a team on the ground to go take samples and collect a body to identify who they were. So, you can understand why this would take a period of time.

GWEN IFILL: How unusual was it to declassify this kind of information?

ADAM ENTOUS: I mean, certainly, very limited information has been released about this program. It is largely conducted behind a cloak of secrecy.

In this case, you know, obviously, al-Qaida knows that the two hostages were killed. It was only a matter of time before it did become public. So, I think the administration’s calculation here was, if you keep it secret, it’s only going to make it worse. That said, they didn’t disclose everything. They didn’t tell us the date of the strike. They didn’t tell us precisely where it took place.

In fact, in their public comments, they’re not even calling it a CIA drone strike. They’re calling it a counterterrorism operation that took place in this ambiguous area that they define as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: But you have confirmed it was indeed a drone strike?

ADAM ENTOUS: This is language that is used in discussing classified information that the administration uses to describe a covert program that is conducted there.

GWEN IFILL: Michael Leiter, can you — what was the scope of the intelligence failure here?

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, I think it was potentially significant. And the administration has started an independent review to figure out what went wrong.

But I have to say, these operations take a long time to actually manifest themselves. It takes lots and lots of surveillance, usually video surveillance, signals intelligence, maybe human intelligence. And what they obviously saw was a place where al-Qaida operatives were assembling.

And what they likely didn’t know was that there were two other people in there. And that’s because they were, in fact, hostages, so they were never coming and going. So, you can sort of imagine what the potential failure was.

The second failure, of course, is not knowing in another strike that there was Adam Gadahn, a U.S. person, there, now, clearly, less tragic. He was a member of al-Qaida, in my view. But there is supposed to be an additional review for U.S. persons. That’s important for due process. And that didn’t occur before the strike.

So, we have two separate potential failures, one, obviously with the innocents vastly more tragic than the other one.

GWEN IFILL: And both of these failures, Congressman Delaney, occurred in Pakistan. And we saw Elaine Weinstein in her family statement today raise questions about Pakistan’s role in this. Do you think these are legitimate questions?

REP. JOHN DELANEY: I think they are legitimate questions.

I mean, it’s important not to have all of our focus be on the intelligence around these strikes, because I believe the people in our government who are executing against these strikes, you know, are working to a really high standard, and they rely upon the intelligence, doing lots of surveillance.

And it is hard, as the president said, to be absolutely certain. Near certainty is the standard. I think the bigger question as it relates to Warren’s situation and all the hostages’ situations is, why aren’t we finding these people across in many cases years and years and years that they’re held in captivity?

It’s one thing to focus on the 30 or 60 days before the strike, but, to me, that’s actually not the most important question. The most important question is, why can’t we find some of these hostages across years of looking for them, when you consider the capabilities we have? And that is really, I think, what Elaine is getting at, which is, was Pakistan, which is where he was captured, as helpful as they could have been?

And that’s the same question I have. And, listen, we were working together on this. And we saw specific things that we would have liked done better, better coordination, better access to information, because, in my opinion, not only should we be doing a better job coordinating our resources and assets here — I have called for effectively a hostage czar to be put together or appointed in the administration that will have the ability to cut through the bureaucracy that inevitably exists in a lot of the areas of our government that touch hostage recover — but, importantly, also be able to kind of bring pressure on our partner nations, like Pakistan, and getting information from them that we think is really important to these investigations.


REP. JOHN DELANEY: And it’s pretty clear that that wasn’t happening to the level that would make me happy in this situation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Adam Entous about that.

To what degree is that conversation going on about a different way of handling these hostage situations?

ADAM ENTOUS: Well, the administration launched a review late last year. We haven’t seen the results of that review, and to see how this current event might affect the outcome of that.

I think, you know, the — you know, the issue of Pakistan’s cooperation here is an interesting issue.

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t seem to go away. The question came up during the Osama bin Laden search as well.

ADAM ENTOUS: Right. And Pakistan is operating in the tribal areas now. How serious that operation is, is a matter of debate within the administration about whether they’re really going after these guys or not.

You know, and the issue is, is, does the United States trust the Pakistanis with information?

GWEN IFILL: And what’s the answer to that question, Michael Leiter?

MICHAEL LEITER: I think, for any sensitive operation, it is — the U.S. government is extremely sensitive to share that with the Pakistanis.

Although the Pakistanis have been very good partners in some ways and have lost many, many people to al-Qaida and other organizations, for the most sensitive operations, sharing that information with a Pakistani means that that information may very well get to the bad guys.

REP. JOHN DELANEY: But we’re not talking about sharing our information with them. We’re talking about making sure we get the information from them that we need, right?

We’re providing a tremendous amount of financial support to the government. And, at a minimum, we should be having access to whatever information, including access to people that they’re holding hostage who may information related to how some of our hostages — so, I don’t think any of us are talking about some information-sharing program with the Pakistani government.

I’m talking about us getting the help we need, in consideration for the support we’re providing, to get Americans home.


REP. JOHN DELANEY: It’s a very different question.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman John Delaney of Maryland, Michael Leiter, Adam Entous, thank you all very much.

ADAM ENTOUS: Thank you.



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