U.S. Never Knew Where Warren Weinstein Was
The U.S. government and intelligence community had lost the trail of kidnapped aid contractor Warren Weinstein long before his death in a counterterrorism strike in January, according to several top administration officials who were deeply involved in the search.
One of the biggest questions following President Barack Obama’s startling revelation Thursday that a U.S. drone strike had killed Weinstein (and Italian hostage Giovanni Lo Porto) is how the intelligence community could have been unaware that he was at the al-Qaeda site where he became collateral damage in the effort to fight terrorism. A lack of human resources on the ground and a total lack of intelligence on Weinstein’s location contributed to the accident that now has the administration and Congress rethinking how the U.S. will conduct its secret war.
“We put a high priority in tracking and finding him and seeing what we could do to rescue him,” Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s ambassador for counterterrorism from 2009 to 2012, told me Thursday. “The trail went cold quickly and we didn’t know where he was.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan were high at the time of Weinstein’s kidnapping, six months after the U.S. raid in May 2011 in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden. The Pakistani government wasn’t particularly helpful in finding Weinstein, but U.S. officials didn’t believe it had any direct information on his whereabouts either.
Officials said the U.S. intelligence community believed that Weinstein was kidnapped by members of the Haqqani network, a Pakistani Taliban group, but quickly transferred to the custody of al-Qaeda’s leadership. In December 2011, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri claimed to be holding him.
Several officials told me that Weinstein, who worked as a business development contractor for United States Agency for International Development in Lahore, was nervous about his security just before his capture. He had built a safe room in his house and told friends he was hoping to leave Pakistan soon.
In 2012 and 2013, al-Qaeda release several hostage videos of Weinstein begging the Obama administration to do more to retrieve him. Several officials told me that although U.S. authorities repeatedly raised his case with their Pakistani counterparts, there was no direct interaction with al-Qaeda about any ransom or trade and no real information on where the terrorist group was holding him for the three years he was in captivity.
“I don’t think there was any attempt to rescue him because I don’t think we had the slightest idea where he was,” said Rand Corporation’s James Dobbins, who was the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2013 to 2014. “I don’t believe there were any real leads.”
Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter said Thursday that Weinstein’s death was the result of a broken interagency process in which a Pentagon official, Jason Amerine, developed a plan for a trade that would have included the return of Weinstein along with Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Bergdahl was released by the Taliban in 2014 in exchange for five Taliban commanders being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Warren Weinstein did not have to die," Hunter said in a statement. "His death is further evidence of the failures in communication and coordination between government agencies tasked with recovering Americans in captivity — and the fact that he’s dead, as a result, is absolutely tragic.”
But several officials told me today that a trade that included Weinstein was never seriously entertained by the interagency team tasked with retrieving him, which was led by the FBI and included the CIA, State Department and Pentagon.
“It never struck us as a plausible option,” Dobbins said, noting that Bergdahl was being held by the Taliban while Weinstein was being held by al-Qaeda. The U.S. had extensive negotiations with the Taliban over the years, but not with al-Qaeda, he pointed out.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Community, told me Thursday that the intelligence community had assessed with high confidence that the location of the January strike was free of civilians and hostages, a deadly mistake.
“This isn’t a case where they got the location wrong, the intelligence about this being an al-Qaeda location was accurate. The intelligence that there were no civilians or hostages there was tragically in error,” he said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to a much deeper dive into this and objective review into what happened.”
But the nature of the terrain in North Waziristan and the lack of human assets on the ground made certainty of the targeting impossible, Schiff added.
Benjamin, now at Dartmouth University, said that it’s an unavoidable risk of the drone strikes that mistakes like these will be made. "If you are taking kinetic action against terrorist targets for years and years on end, the law of averages is going to catch up with you and something terrible like this is going to happen,” he said.
That calculation comes as little comfort to those who knew Weinstein. Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, had regular contact with Weinstein over the years. He told me Thursday that striking targets in Pakistan without clear understanding of who is at them is misguided.
“There was some culpability and responsibility to determine who was in this location, not just some bad guy. I think its really important to find out what they chain of command was,” he said. “Who targeted that particular house? Did the Pakistanis do it? Did we do it? That’s where Congress and the government should investigate.”
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday that the president had not personally signed off on these particular attacks because there was no suspicion that Americans were present. He offered no specific explanation for how the intelligence failure occurred but expressed condolences to the families of the two hostages killed.
Weinstein’s capture in 2011 effectively ended an era of robust U.S. development work in Pakistan, one championed by the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time, Richard Holbrooke, who opposed the CIA’s drone strikes, along with then-Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter.
Holbrooke and Munter fought against the White House’s military and drone-focused policy and argued for a more comprehensive approach that involved building partnerships with the Pakistani government and negotiating with the Taliban. But after Weinstein’s disappearance (and Holbrooke’s death in late 2010), that idea was largely shelved.
“The Warren Weinstein kidnapping was problematic in terms of having Americans spend time in Pakistan,” said Alyssa Ayres, a former State Department official now with the Council on Foreign Relations. “The constraints on even having even a normal aid program in Pakistan are severe. It shows that al-Qaeda is not defeated and people are forgetting that.”
The fact that the U.S. government could not have known Warren Weinstein was at that terrorist site before a drone destroyed it may absolve the government from direct culpability in his death. But that same fact lays bare the problem: The drone program alone cannot solve the problem of terrorism or protect Americans at home or abroad.
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