The White House announced Thursday that a drone strike in January on al-Qaida accidentally resulted in the death of two hostages.
One of those hostages was former Oswego State professor Warren Weinstein. The other was Italian Giovanni Lo Porto.
Weinstein, 73, was kidnapped by al-Qaida in August 2011 from his home in Lahar, Pakistan. He was working for J.E. Austin Associates in the region on contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Lo Porto, 37, was kidnapped in 2012 while working in Pakistan for Welthungerhilfe, German non-governmental organization.
Weinstein earned his doctorate from Columbia University and then became a professor in the political science department where he taught Oswego State students until 1979, when he went to work in economic development for the federal government.
President Barack Obama apologized on Thursday for death of the two men.
“As a husband and as a father figure I cannot begin to imagine the anguish that the Weinstein and Lo Porto families are enduring today,” Obama said. “I realize that there are no words that can ever equal their loss. I know that there is nothing that I can say or do to ease their heartache and today I simply want to say this: As president and as commander in chief I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies for what happened.”
The counterterrorism operation occurred in mid January and information on the drone strike was classified until now. Obama said that the reason for declassification was because the families of the victims “deserve to know the truth.”
The strikes occurred in the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan at an al-Qaida compound where government officials did not suspect any civilians were being held, according to Obama. The president acknowledged that deadly mistakes can occur in war and said that he has directed a review of what happened in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives in the future.
Weinstein lived in Rockville, Md. with his wife, Elaine Weinstein, who released a statement on behalf of the family on a website dedicated to her late husband.
“On behalf of myself, our two daughters, our son-in-law, and two grandchildren, we are devastated by this news and the knowledge that my husband will never safely return home. We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through,” Elaine’s statement said. “We do not yet fully understand all of the facts surrounding Warren’s death but we do understand that the U.S. government will be conducting an independent investigation of the circumstances. We look forward to the results of that investigation. But those who took Warren captive over three years ago bear ultimate responsibility. I can assure you that he would still be alive and well if they had allowed him to return home after his time abroad working to help the people of Pakistan.”
Weinstein’s wife criticized how the U.S. government handled the situation as a whole.
“Unfortunately, the assistance we received from other elements of the U.S. Government was inconsistent and disappointing over the course of three and a half years,” Elaine Weinstein said. “We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. Government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”
Acting Department Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State Marie Harf commented on the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto in her daily press briefing.
“I think these families have gone through the worst thing they will ever have to go through, and I think you hear a lot of different statements from them,” Harf said. “We’ve heard people talk about how supportive the U.S. Government has been. But we know this is an incredibly challenging issue. That’s why we’re doing a review of how we deal with all of these issues. And I just don’t want to speculate on these kinds of statements by families that are going through, as I said, the worst thing they will ever go through.”
Harf added that there is an ongoing investigation on how situations similar to Weinstein’s are handled by the government. She also added that Weinstein’s family and Lo Porto’s family would receive compensation as a result of what happened in January.
Retired Oswego State political science professor Bruce Altschuler recalled his time spent with Weinstein in the late 1970s.
“He was a very good colleague,” Altschuler said. “When I first came to Oswego, I was a very late hire. There was a sudden vacancy and I was still in graduate school in New York City… He put me up in his house. I stayed in his daughter’s room… And he drove me around to look for an apartment and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
Altschuler remembered his colleague as someone dedicated to selfless humanitarian efforts.
“After I was there two years, he left to work in foreign aid for Agency for International Development (US AID), which is what he always wanted to do,” Altschuler said. “We’re talking about somebody who spent his life helping people in developed countries.”
The political science professor said that he contributed to efforts pressuring the government to see Weinstein return home safely. He said that hearing the news of Weinstein’s death was “terrible.”
“He’d been taken hostage in 2011 and we’d been doing what little we could to try to help,” Altschuler said. “President [Deborah] Stanley issued a very good statement when he was kidnapped, urging his release and urging President Obama to do whatever he could to get him home safely. I sponsored a resolution by UUP (United University Professions), the faculty and staff union statewide, that was passed similarly and we were able to get the American Federation of Teachers working on his behalf, but videos would come out periodically and he would look worse and worse. He was a man in his 70s, he was on heart medication and you could see each video he looked worse.”
Oswego State president Deborah F. Stanley released a statement on the death of Weinstein Thursday afternoon.
“Weinstein devoted his life to making the world a better place,” Stanley said. “He left us to serve others in some of the world’s most impoverished and troubled regions. His life was an inspiration that will not die. Our hearts go out to his family, friend and colleagues.”