EDGARTOWN, Mass. - A U.S. special operations team tried and failed to rescue journalist James Foley and other Americans held hostage in Syria during a secret mission in early July authorized by President Barack Obama, senior administration officials said Wednesday.
A day after Sunni militants posted a video showing Foley being beheaded, officials described what they called a "complicated operation" in which several dozen commandos were dropped into a remote area of Syria where U.S. intelligence agencies believed several hostages were being held by the Islamic State group. The officials said they believed a number of the terrorists were killed in the operation.
But when the special operations team arrived on the scene, the hostages were not there. Officials said the commandos exchanged fire with militants, and one American was slightly wounded when one of the U.S. aircraft came under fire.
All of the team members were evacuated successfully. "It was not ultimately successful because the hostages were not present at the location of the operation," a senior administration official said about the mission. "We obviously wish this had been successful."
Officials declined to say exactly how many hostages they were trying to rescue or to provide the names of the people who they believed were being held captive by the militants. "I don't want to get into our assessment of specific names on that score," one official said.
The administration said the decision to release information about the rescue attempt was made as some news organizations prepared to reveal the mission's existence. The officials said they had kept the mission secret for a number of weeks in an attempt to "preserve future opportunities" to conduct another rescue operation.
Officials would not provide the location of the mission, but noted that if it had taken place in or near a heavily populated area, it would likely to have been noticed before now. The officials also declined to describe the location, saying in part that the militants on the ground may not have been aware that the mission was a rescue attempt. To describe the location precisely might give that fact away, they said.
The administration did not know whether the hostages had never been in the location that intelligence had pointed to, or if they had been moved just before the U.S. team arrived, officials said.
"The truth is we don't know," one official said. "When we got there, they weren't there. We don't know why that is."
The mission was authorized by Obama after intelligence from a variety of sources suggested a location where the hostages were being held, officials said.
They added that the breadth of the intelligence gave them confidence to go ahead with the rescue. The mission was conducted by a joint force, officials said, that included members from all of the military services. The special operations soldiers, about two dozen of them, were dropped onto the ground by helicopters and were supported overhead by helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, the officials said.
"We do believe there were a good number of ISIL casualties as a result of this operation," an official said, referring to the Islamic State group.
Intelligence is not "an exact science," said the officials, describing a "layered procedure" in which the agencies built a picture of where they thought the hostages might be.
"It builds over time," one senior administration official said. "We never lost sight of the plight of these hostages. We never stopped, never halted trying to get information about them."
The administration has kept in touch with the family members of the Americans being held by the Islamic State during the years that they have been held captive and "consistently and regularly informed" them of the efforts to find the hostages, the officials said. Families have been informed of the latest rescue attempt, the officials said, but did not say when they were told.
"They were informed as soon as we felt operationally we could do so," one official said.