The CIA detected an apparent Western hostage being held by al-Qaeda in Pakistan but did not keep the person under drone surveillance, according to U.S. officials who said they now suspect that the captive may have been an American aid worker who was killed in an agency strike this year.
The surveillance lapse is being scrutinized as part of an internal CIA investigation of the death of Warren Weinstein, U.S. officials said, describing the sequence as a potential missed opportunity to avert that outcome.
U.S. officials emphasized that the drone footage showing a possible hostage was so inconclusive that even after a long and detailed examination it remains unclear whether the heavily guarded figure was Weinstein.
Still, officials said that senior lawmakers have voiced concern in classified hearings that the CIA abandoned a potential lead on an al-Qaeda captive to remain focused on hunting terrorists — despite President Obama’s promise that the government was doing everything it could to find Weinstein.
“The agency’s main purpose is to go kill terrorists,” said a U.S. official familiar with the inquiry. “They will tell you it is not to rescue hostages.”
Obama administration officials disputed that characterization and said that critics of the agency’s failure to identify the hostage in the drone footage have the benefit of hindsight.
The intelligence community “prioritizes intelligence collection regarding U.S. hostages,” White House spokesman Ned Price said. “We take full responsibility for the counterterrorism operation that resulted in” Weinstein’s death.
Weinstein, of Rockville, Md., and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker, were killed in a CIA strike on an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan in January after each had spent several years in al-Qaeda captivity. The agency did not know that Weinstein, 73, and Lo Porto, 39, were at the compound until their bodies were removed from the rubble afterward.
Obama issued a public apology to their families in April and called for an investigation of the errant strike to determine whether any changes to U.S. targeting processes could have prevented the deaths. That inquiry is ongoing.
The possibility that Weinstein was spotted by CIA drones had not been shared with members of his family, who have grown frustrated waiting for the Obama administration to deliver on promises to provide results of the investigation of his death and compensate them for their loss.
“We believed the president when he told us that rescuing American hostages was his highest priority,” Elaine Weinstein, Warren Weinstein’s wife, said in a statement provided to The Washington Post. “They told us for three years ‘everything possible’ was being done to find and rescue Warren. We now feel deceived. . . . How do I explain to my grandkids that government could have saved their grandpa, but decided not to?”
U.S. officials said that the CIA and other spy agencies devoted significant resources to finding Weinstein but never had clear intelligence on where he was being held. The drone imagery showing an apparent hostage was collected as long as a year before Weinstein was killed, according to officials who said that agency analysts initially assessed that it was unlikely that the captive was the American.
It is unclear why the CIA reached that preliminary determination. The agency declined to comment.
Even so, the imagery contained clues that the person “was clearly a non-internal hostage,” a U.S. official said, meaning a prisoner who was being handled in a way that suggested he was of high importance and from outside the tribal territory in Pakistan where al-Qaeda is based. Another U.S. official said the person stood out in part because of how he was kept segregated from others.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the drone program and the investigation of Weinstein’s death.
Al-Qaeda and affiliated militant groups have abducted several Western hostages in Pakistan over the past five years. In addition to Weinstein and Lo Porto, Bernd Muehlenbeck, a German aid worker, also had been taken captive but was freed last year. An American woman, her Canadian husband, their child, who was born in captivity, and another Canadian citizen also are thought to be held in the region, U.S. officials said.
The CIA had spotted the apparent hostage before Muehlenbeck was released, officials said, meaning it came months before the strike that killed Weinstein. The CIA had watched the site for 400 hours before launching the strike, which also killed senior al-Qaeda leader Ahmed Farouq, a U.S. citizen.
Obama said in April that the agency appeared to have followed counterterrorism guidelines he established to guard against killing civilians, and officials said that no new evidence has emerged to suggest that the agency deviated from those protocols.
“Indeed, immediately before launching the operation, we assessed with a very high level of confidence that the compound housed only al-Qaeda members and that no innocent lives would be lost,” a senior administration official said. “It was only after the fact that we determined that not to have been the case.”
But it has not previously been disclosed that the agency had spotted an apparent Western hostage months before Weinstein was killed. U.S. officials indicated that the CIA’s surveillance was interrupted, possibly by weather, movements by militants or other factors that can impede the drones’ view.
Several U.S. officials said they believe that if the agency had seen some clear indication that the person was Weinstein, it would have gone to greater lengths to keep him in its sights. The failure to follow through despite doubts about the prisoner’s identity, however, has prompted criticism that the CIA did not treat the lead as a priority.
U.S. officials said the issue has been a subject of tense exchanges in closed sessions before the Senate Intelligence Committee, with senior members expressing dismay that the CIA did not continue surveillance of the individual or devote additional assets to relocating and tracking him.
A senior aide said that the Weinstein case has been treated as a matter of importance by the committee but that there are conflicting views over whether the intelligence on the hostage was mishandled. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the committee, declined to comment.
Several Democrats on the panel have tracked the Weinstein case closely, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, where the Weinstein family lives.
Feinstein, who has been a staunch supporter of the CIA drone program, declined to comment. Mikulski said in a statement to The Post that she has pressed the administration repeatedly to resolve matters with the Weinstein family, but she declined to address whether she had concerns about the CIA’s handling of the case.
“We must remember that for the Weinstein family, this ordeal is not over,” Mikulski said in the statement. “I have urged the administration to work with the Weinstein family to address their questions and concerns, and to provide a just compensation for their loss.”
Five months after Obama’s apology, the family still has not received payment. A U.S. official said that payment was held up by ongoing negotiations between the family and the CIA.
Weinstein was taken hostage on Aug. 13, 2011, from his home in Lahore, where he was working as a development and aid contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri subsequently claimed that Weinstein was being held by al-Qaeda and would be released only after the United States ceased airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Weinstein appeared haggard in videos released by al-Qaeda. In a 2012 message, he urged his wife to work with Jewish communities “to put pressure on the American government and President Obama to work with and accept the demands of the mujahideen in order for me to get my freedom.”
The family hired a private company to negotiate his release and paid a $250,000 ransom in 2012 in a failed attempt to secure his freedom. A year later, in a videotaped plea to the president and news media, Weinstein said he felt “totally abandoned and forgotten.”
Following Weinstein’s abduction, Obama said that he had directed his national security team to “do everything possible to find him and to bring him home safely to his family.” A family spokesman said the disclosure that the CIA had a chance to locate and identify an apparent hostage has prompted relatives to question whether the government followed Obama’s orders.
“We are shocked to learn that the administration may have found the location where Mr. Weinstein was believed to be held and then did nothing to confirm his identity or rescue him,” said John Brownlee, a lawyer who has volunteered his services to the family. “If true, this is a very different story than what officials told Mrs. Weinstein.”
The CIA has in numerous cases made payments to relatives of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. U.S. officials said that it is highly unusual for the agency to negotiate directly with the family of a U.S. citizen killed in a strike but that the agency has reached settlements with Americans in other cases.
After former FBI agent and CIA contractor Robert Levinson went missing on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007 on an unauthorized mission, the spy agency paid the family $2.5 million in the form of a tax-free annuity.
The White House has faced a host of complaints from the family members of Americans taken hostage in Pakistan and Syria that the United States did not do enough to bring their loved ones home and that the government had not shared information.
Obama announced in June, after a review, that his administration was improving the way it deals with the families of hostages seized abroad. As part of a new hostage policy, the administration created a new fusion cell led by the FBI that could share classified information with families when necessary.
“We are changing how we do business,” Obama said.
But the Weinsteins say the CIA has not provided any details about its ongoing investigation. “The Obama administration has mishandled this entire incident,” Elaine Weinstein said. Recently she said she learned from the U.S. government that her husband’s body had been removed from his grave in Pakistan. “They were aware that the terrorists stole Warren’s body from his grave and allowed those cruel people to desecrate his remains without doing anything to intervene,” she said. “I just don’t know how much more I can take.”
Julie Tate contributed to this report.