IN JANUARY 2015, a CIA drone strike killed two aid workers held hostage in an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan. Then, in April, President Barack Obama made an unprecedented announcement from the White House.
He named the two men — an American, Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovanni Lo Porto — and took “full responsibility” for their deaths. Despite hours of surveillance, the president said, no one had detected the presence of the hostages. The White House promised a “full review” of the strike, possible changes to policies around drone strikes, and compensation for the Weinstein and Lo Porto families.
Nearly a year later, little has emerged about the investigation. And while Weinstein’s family is reportedly still negotiating a settlement with the CIA, Lo Porto’s relations have had no contact with the U.S. government, directly or through the Italian authorities.
The youngest of Lo Porto’s four brothers, Daniele Lo Porto, has become the reluctant spokesperson for a family thrust into an international tragedy. I met him in the office of the family’s lawyers in an upscale district of Rome. He had come for the day from Pistoia, a Tuscan city not far from Florence, where he works nights at a grocery store. He told me that his mother, Giuseppa, or Giusy, is completely devastated. She lives in Palermo, spending her days mainly in bed, posting on Facebook about Giovanni — called Giancarlo by his family.
“If you lose a son, and you get an explanation, your heart can be at peace. But someone whose son is killed, and everyone washes their hands of it, and no one knows anything?” Daniele said, trailing off.
This week, the Lo Porto family’s lawyers filed briefs with the Italian state prosecutor investigating Giovanni’s kidnapping and death, arguing that strikes like the one that killed him are illegal under international law, and requesting that the prosecutor ask the U.S. government to hand over information about the operation.
The lawyers have also dispatched a letter to the White House seeking information about the promised investigation and compensation.
A simple payout isn’t likely to bring closure for Lo Porto’s family. “America could give us a palace full of money, and it wouldn’t matter,” Daniele told The Intercept. “There can be no justice from America.”
“The statements from the White House were such a clear acknowledgment of the incident and commitment to do something about it,” said Andrea Saccucci, a prominent human rights lawyer in Rome who is representing the Lo Porto family, in an interview. “We want to know the truth, to know what happened, if someone is responsible, and if something could have been done in order to avoid it.”
Giovanni Lo Porto was born in Palermo, the capital of Sicily, in 1977, the fourth of five brothers in a working-class family. He dropped out of school as a young teenager, but at around 16 years old, he went to central Italy, where he worked construction and went to night classes to make up his lost schooling, eventually becoming the only child in his family to go to university. He went abroad to the Balkans to do construction and then got into aid work, traveling to disaster zones around the world as a logistics specialist, from Haiti to Myanmar to the Central African Republic.
“It was in his nature to help people,” said Claudia Hille, a friend from university. “And I think he also wanted to get away from Italy. The international aid community is really open-minded, it’s like a special bubble, and I think he really liked that.”
Still, said Margherita Romanelli, a friend and former coworker, Lo Porto kept in contact with home and supported his mother. “He had a lot of experiences, and an education, but he never denied his origin,” she said.
In 2005, he worked for the Red Cross in Pakistan. He wrote into a popular news blog that year scolding the Italian press for its coverage of Pakistan, arguing that “to label 150 million people as terrorists because of a few is ridiculous, a bit like labeling all Sicilians mafiosi.”
He started university in London in 2007 and obtained a degree in peace and conflict studies at London Metropolitan University. The program’s director at the time, Mike Newman, said that Lo Porto once gave a speech to the mayor of Hiroshima as part of a peace course there.
As an older student, Newman recalled, Lo Porto brought insight from his experience in the field to the classroom. Classmates and friends described him as warm and always helpful, cooking dinners, helping with moves, and dispensing career and travel advice. They said he had no ambition to become head of an NGO or a well-paid expat, but that he liked working on the practical end of projects, staying close to local communities and out of the bureaucracy.
The two were held together for about a year. In late 2012, the captors released a video of Mühlenbeck pleading for help from the German government. Lo Porto wasn’t mentioned, but Mühlenbeck spoke in the plural. Sometime later, they were separated, and Lo Porto wound up held by al Qaeda militants, along with Warren Weinstein, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who had been kidnapped in Pakistan in 2011.
Mühlenbeck was released to German special operations forces in Afghanistan in early October 2014. He visited Lo Porto’s mother in Palermo, and told the family that, at least for the year they’d been held together, he and Giovanni had been treated decently.
“He told us that in that year, they read more than 100 books, and they played a lot of checkers. They kept a journal, but then the captors discovered it and destroyed it,” Daniele recalled. “He said they were left alone sometimes. They were in the mountains — even if they escaped, they wouldn’t know where to go.” (Mühlenbeck declined an interview request.)
Not long after Mühlenbeck was freed, Italian authorities showed the Lo Porto family a video message from Giovanni, and indicated that they were in contact with intermediaries and making progress on negotiations. In December 2014, Daniele says, he spoke with an official from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“He told me, ‘I can guarantee that your brother will come home,’” Daniele said.
Between that call and Obama’s announcement, the Lo Porto family heard little more about the negotiations, and nothing to indicate that the Italians knew he had been killed.
Indeed, on January 16, the day after the strike reportedly took place, Italy’s minister of foreign affairs gave a speech to parliament about two Italian women who had been freed in Syria. Referring to Lo Porto, he said, “We are working with maximum dedication” to secure his release.
According to later statements from the White House, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, was notified of Lo Porto’s death the day before Obama went public on April 23.
On that day, Italian officials went to see Giuseppa. It had been reported that morning that an Italian hostage had been killed in Pakistan, and though there was no name, the family was sure that it was Giovanni. But the officials wouldn’t confirm it until Obama spoke.
Daniele watched Obama’s announcement from Tuscany. “My reaction? Anger,” he said. “After waiting all that time [while Giovanni was held hostage] you could expect anything, but not that.”
“Obama said the intelligence service was watching, and yet no one knew anything?” Daniele said incredulously. He says he sought answers from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, often called the “Farnesina” for the palace that houses it. “How could the Americans not see that there were two other people, the hostages?” he asked. “With the technology they have, can’t they see inside the houses? And this guy in the Farnesina told me, ‘No, that’s just what you see in the movies.’ That really offended me.”
If the incident created tensions between Renzi and Obama, Italian officials’ public statements didn’t indicate it. Renzi said he had “very much appreciated the total transparency” from Obama, and the minister of foreign affairs said the responsibility for the deaths “was completely the terrorists.” The political reaction, even from opposition parties, has been minimal. The Wall Street Journal reported that in January, Italy began allowing the United States to use Sigonella, a Sicilian air base, for armed drone flights over Libya and North Africa, at least for defensive operations. (The Italian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)
The Italians eventually recovered Lo Porto’s body, which had been held ransom by another group in Pakistan. At the funeral in Palermo last September, his coffin was draped with a rainbow-colored flag with the word “PACE” — an iconic peace symbol in Italy. The mayor of Palermo and some local officials attended, but no one else from the Italian government.
“They’ve said, ‘It’s no longer our responsibility. We brought him home; alive or dead, we did it, and that’s enough,’” Daniele said.
In October, Andrea Saccucci, the human rights lawyer, and a criminal lawyer Giorgio Perroni, lodged a complaint with the Italian state prosecutor in Rome on behalf of Lo Porto’s mother and brother, asking that the prosecutor open a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the kidnapping and death.
This week, Saccucci’s firm launched a new effort to push the investigation forward. The firm has filed an expert opinion, written by a prominent international law professor, on the legality of U.S. drone strikes outside of declared armed conflicts — such as the strike in Pakistan that killed Lo Porto — and the responsibility for investigating and bringing claims on behalf of civilians killed in them. (These expert opinions come in the form of hypotheticals, laying out relevant legal context in an effort to persuade the prosecutor that he could bring charges.)
The investigation could continue for months, or even years. If eventually the prosecutor decides to close the investigation without charges, the Lo Porto family’s lawyers will have a chance to argue that decision in a hearing before a judge.
The likelihood of charges is slim, Saccucci concedes. The prosecutor has admitted that he has little in his file besides the lawyers’ briefs and Obama’s statement. And the prosecutor has already had a discouraging experience with the United States. In 2005, Mario Lozano, a U.S. soldier, shot an Italian intelligence officer named Nicolo Calipari at a checkpoint in Iraq. In a highly politicized case, the Italians attempted to try Lozano for murder. The U.S. government rebuffed requests for cooperation, and ultimately, an Italian high court ruled that Italy lacked jurisdiction over the incident.
If a criminal trial fails, Saccucci says the family could attempt to bring a claim against Italy in the European Court of Human Rights, or they could try a civil claim against the United States in Italian court. A challenge in U.S. courts is likely more difficult; earlier this month, a federal court in Washington, D.C., tossed out a case brought on behalf of Yemeni civilians killed in a drone strike in 2012.
The case of Lo Porto and Weinstein offers a test of renewed pledges of transparency about the drone program, which will be an enduring legacy of the Obama administration. Last week, administration officials announced that they would begin releasing an annual report on casualties from counterterrorism operations outside of conventional war zones, including civilian casualties. Administration lawyers have also indicated that they will make public parts of key documents on the legal and bureaucratic framework for such operations.
The White House’s blunt acknowledgement of the intelligence failure in this case serves as a reminder that drones, despite their relative precision and surveillance capabilities, are not infallible weapons. As the model of “targeted” strikes against terrorist suspects by drones and other aircraft expands to Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere with the rise of the Islamic State, many have raised concerns that civilian deaths may become more common. Just last month, in Libya, two Serbian hostages were killed in a U.S. air raid.
The Obama administration has long maintained that the number of civilian deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia is much lower than estimates given by outside groups like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In May 2013, the president announced new guidelines for counterterrorism operations stating that a strike would be conducted only if there was “near certainty” that no civilians would be harmed. But in the years that followed, the administration almost never responded to specific allegations of civilian casualties.
With Lo Porto and Weinstein, White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted that after “hundreds of hours of surveillance,” the intelligence indicated that the near-certainty standard had been met. The compound had been assessed as one used by al Qaeda, but the terrorists killed in the strike were not “specifically targeted.” The operation was what’s known as a “signature strike,” where the United States fires on people who exhibit suspect patterns of behavior, without necessarily knowing their identities. It was only later that analysts concluded the strike had killed Ahmed Faruq, an al Qaeda leader (and American citizen).
“The presence of these civilians was not detected” until after the strike, Earnest said.
Earnest also said that he would “readily admit” that the incident raised “legitimate questions about whether additional changes need to be made to those protocols” for strikes, and assured that compensation would be provided.
Ned Price, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, had no update on the status of the inspector general’s review of the strike. He told The Intercept that “our review of the circumstances that resulted in this tragedy would have no bearing on this condolence payment,” but he would not provide any further details on the review or the compensation “out of respect for the privacy of these families.”
Last month, an attorney for the Weinstein family said the administration had “stonewalled Mrs. Weinstein and refused to negotiate a reasonable settlement.” The Weinsteins had suggested a plan for compensation similar to one that Congress created for Americans taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran in 1979, which allowed for payments of $10,000 per day that the hostages were held. The U.S. has in the past paid non-Western victims amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to nearly $1 million after a strike hit a wedding party in Yemen.
“It’s quite remarkable to me that the administration hasn’t offered a fuller public explanation of the strike,” or payment, said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, in an email to The Intercept. “But of course all of this is consistent with the broader rule” not to acknowledge or account for civilian deaths in the many hundreds of other attacks that have taken place, he added.
Marco Beltrandi, a politician with the Radical Italians — a left-libertarian party — called Lo Porto’s death “emblematic” of the concerns raised by American counterterrorism strikes. “The United States government must clarify what happened not just to the family, but to our entire country, and to the international community,” he said in an interview.
“The problem is that these interventions are totally outside of any national or international jurisdiction,” he said.
The friends and colleague of Lo Porto whom I interviewed all emphasized the tragic irony that a man so committed to peace is now at the center of debates about this new kind of war.
“Unfortunately, we can’t do anything more for Giovanni, but we can try to follow in his spirit,” said his friend Margherita Romanelli. “We can get past this idea that drone warfare isn’t really a war. It is. And the victims are real.”