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In wake of the deaths of two hostages, U.S. needs to review policy on drones

The ugliness of war in an age of new technology resulted in the unintended killings of two hostages, one an American aid worker, in a drone strike in Pakistan. A clearly shaken president delivered a heartfelt public apology, but that is not enough.

This awful incident makes clear why it is so important to get it right in this new type of warfare and why President Obama must ensure his people do a better job.

Drones are only as good as the information being fed into the machines. In January, the Central Intelligence Agency made a grievous error when authorizing the destruction of a compound linked to al-Qaida. Despite careful observations, the agency did not know that hostages were being held at the compound.

Warren Weinstein was from Rockville, Md., a veteran aid worker who had been held by al-Qaida since 2011. Italian national Giovanni Lo Porto, also an aid worker, had been held since 2012. Weinstein’s wife, in a statement that demonstrated an enormous strength, correctly placed blame for her husband’s death on his captors.

But the fact is the deadly strike was triggered by remote control by an operator far from the scene.

The practice has drawn strong criticism from humanitarian groups that cite countless civilian deaths along with al-Qaida members. Such collateral damage has been around as long as war, itself. But it is made more shocking in an age in which we can collect huge amounts of information and kill from long distance.

On another disturbing note, the White House disclosed that two Americans, both al-Qaida operatives, were also killed in U.S. counterterrorism operations in the same region. Neither had been deliberately targeted, and those deaths further demonstrate just how hard it is to be precise in this new war.

The reality is this: America is unlikely to stop using drones to carry out important missions, especially when doing so means not putting troops in harm’s way. The Obama administration has clearly embraced the strategy. It is when things go so wrong that the risks versus rewards need to be remeasured in public.

Putting the genie back in the bottle is unrealistic. Demanding our leaders do a better job is not.