APRIL 23, 2015
First Evidence of a Blunder in Drone Strike: 2 Extra Bodies
By MARK MAZZETTI and ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON -- The first sign that something had gone terribly wrong was when officers from the C.I.A. saw that six bodies had been pulled from the rubble instead of four.
For weeks, drones had watched the movements of four men around a compound in the Shawal Valley. After the drones struck on Jan. 15, the agency thought that only those four had died.
But when six bodies were taken from the wreckage and hastily buried, it was a clear signal that the spy agency had made a deadly mistake. It took weeks for the extent of the disaster to be revealed: The two additional bodies were those of an American and an Italian hostage. One of them was Warren Weinstein,  from Rockville, Md., a veteran aid worker who had been held by Al Qaeda since 2011.
President Obama said Thursday that his administration was investigating the botched drone strike, carried out in the thickly forested valley that straddles North and South Waziristan in the lawless region of western Pakistan. But serious questions have already emerged -- about the intelligence leading up to the strike, about when American officials knew that the hostages had been killed, and about why it took the White House so long to go public with the information.
The weeks leading up to the strike followed a familiar pattern.
Armed C.I.A. drones launched from a base in eastern Afghanistan flew over the border into the Shawal Valley, a favored hide-out of militants, and settled into a routine of spying on the comings and goings at a compound in the village of Wacha Dara. The drones monitored the "pattern of life" of a group suspected of being militants, believed to be Qaeda operatives and possibly members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, several American officials said.
Analysts also eavesdropped on cellphone conversations, another step taken to determine the identities of the suspects and what kind of threat they posed.
In Pakistan, unlike elsewhere in the world, the White House permits the C.I.A. to carry out drone strikes without knowing the identities of the people the agency is trying to kill. These "signature strikes," based on patterns of behavior rather than intelligence about specific people, have been criticized in the past as generating a higher number of civilian deaths.
American officials acknowledged that the Jan. 15 attack was a signature strike, but said that the C.I.A. had assessed with "high confidence" that the compound in the Shawal Valley was being used by Qaeda operatives. The officials said that before every drone strike, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, the agency must have "near certainty" that no civilians will be killed.
The strike was conducted despite Mr. Obama's indication in a speech in 2013 that the C.I.A. would no longer conduct such signature strikes after 2014, when American "combat operations" in Afghanistan were scheduled to end. Several American officials said Thursday that the deadline had not been enforced.
At no time during the weeks of surveillance in the Shawal Valley, the American officials said, did analysts detect any signs that the militants were holding Mr. Weinstein or Giovanni Lo Porto,  an Italian aid worker held in Pakistan since 2012.
It was not until after the drone strike that C.I.A. 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.
"There were two more burials than we expected, and we didn't know who they were," said one American official briefed on the investigation.
Then, when the C.I.A. pressed informants on the ground for more information and sifted through more intercepts, analysts began hearing ominous talk that "Westerners" had been killed.
Within weeks of the strike, American intelligence agencies began to pick up information that Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto might be dead -- without piecing together that it was the C.I.A. strike that had killed them.
The F.B.I. alerted Mr. Weinstein's family in early February that he might have died, according to two American officials and a consultant working on the case, although the F.B.I. was not wholly certain of its information at the time.
"They were hearing reports that he was dead and thought it was significant enough to tell his wife," said the consultant, who requested anonymity in order to be able to speak about the classified matter. "But she continued to hold out hope."
At that time, the consultant said, the family assumed that if Mr. Weinstein had died, it was from an illness. The 73-year-old had looked increasingly gaunt and unwell in successive videos that Al Qaeda released during the years the group held him, the most recent this past August, when Al Qaeda addressed the man's family directly and said, "Your government wants Warren Weinstein to die in prison so that it may absolve itself of responsibility in his case."
After the F.B.I. alerted the Weinstein family, investigators continued to pursue numerous leads and scraps of information. With no ability to send investigators into the tribal areas to gather evidence or talk to possible witnesses, analysts had to piece together a mosaic of information, including more intercepted electronic communications, to try to come to a firm conclusion.
American officials eventually determined that the two hostages had either been in the compound before the surveillance began and had never been moved, or had somehow been slipped into the compound during a gap in the American surveillance.
"It was in the course of following up on those intelligence leads, and developing intelligence from a wide variety of sources, that the intelligence community was able to assess with high confidence that Dr. Weinstein had been killed," Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said Thursday.
Initial news media reports about that strike were hazy. Some news outlets suggested that fighters loyal to Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban-affiliated warlord who holds sway in North Waziristan, had been targeted. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry issued a short statement  condemning the drone strike.
Mr. Obama was finally briefed about the conclusions of the investigation this month. Intelligence officials also briefed members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees that a strong body of evidence indicated that the two aid workers had been killed in the strike.
On Wednesday, the day before his announcement, Mr. Obama called Mr. Weinstein's widow, Elaine, and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, to notify them that the two hostages had been killed during the C.I.A. operation.
The bodies of Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto remain in Shawal, a long swooping valley walled by snow-dusted peaks. They are buried there along with the bodies of the other four men, not far from the site of the American strike.
Rukmini Callimachi contributed reporting from New York, Peter Baker from Washington and Declan Walsh from London.