Pool / Getty Images
The three US military investigations into a Jan. 29 raid in Yemen that killed a US Navy SEAL will not answer the central question that still hovers over the controversial operation: What did the US military present to the president and how far did the raid deviate from that plan?
In the days after the raid, the military said the president approved the raid. But President Donald Trump told Fox and Friends in an interview that aired Tuesday that the raid was conceived before he took office and brought to him by “the generals.” It was their raid, he said, not his.
“This was a mission that was started before I got here,” Trump said during the interview. “This was something that they wanted to do,” he said, appearing to refer to the military.
Trump distanced himself from the decision, at one point saying: “They lost Ryan,” referring to Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, 36, the father of three who was killed in the raid. Six other troops were injured during the operation. Trump’s use of the word “they” in describing Owens’ death was an extraordinary statement to make in a military where some commanders carry the photo of everyone lost under their command.
The contrast between the military assertion that the president signed off on the raid and Trump’s most recent statements made it difficult to know how decision making on major military operations happens in the Trump White House. Is the White House involved in every detail as it was under the Obama administration? Or has Trump decided to take a more hands-off approach, like President George W. Bush?
“It leaves open who is the approval authority for these kinds of operations – Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, US Central Command [which is responsible for the Middle East] or the President. We just don’t know,” said Pete Mansoor, a history professor at Ohio State University and a military veteran. “Any of those could be acceptable depending on how much risk the White House wants to take and how much initiative it wants to give to subordinate commanders.”
The president was expected to address the Yemen raid — and the reasons behind it — during his joint session to Congress Tuesday night.
According a Reuters report that quoted military officials, Trump approved the raid “without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.”
The White House cited the three US military investigations for how the US government is looking into the raid. But none of those investigations have the authority to dissect the conversation between the president, Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a dinner at the White House held the Wednesday before the raid, in which the president signed off on the mission, according to a US defense official. Rather, they will look at everything that happened because of that decision.
The internal military investigation, known internally as a 15-6, will ask questions about what happened during the raid itself and the military planning leading up to it. The second investigation will seek to confirm whether the US military killed civilians — as many as 30 civilians, including nine children, according to one investigation — during the 50-minute firefight. And the third will examine what led to the hard landing of an V-22 Osprey, an aircraft designed with both a vertical takeoff and landing like a helicopter, two provinces away that was intended to serve as a medevac. The aircraft, which was inoperable after the landing, was destroyed at the site.
Owens’ father, William Owens, called for investigation in an interview with The Miami Herald published Sunday. But he did not say what kind of investigation he wanted, though his displeasure with the president and decision making process suggested that was the focus of his concerns. Owens said he refused to meet the president when his son’s remains arrived in the United States.
“Why at this time did there have to be this stupid mission when it wasn’t even barely a week into his administration? Why? For two years prior, there were no boots on the ground in Yemen — everything was missiles and drones — because there was not a target worth one American life. Now, all of a sudden we had to make this grand display?’’ Owens told the Herald.
Trump’s comments to Fox and Friends were his first since Owens gave that interview. The president, who traveled to Dover Air Force base, as Owens arrived, told the show he met with “most of the family.”
The US military has said it acquired “actionable intelligence” in the raid and Trump told Fox and Friends “they got tremendous amounts of information.” But the military has stopped short of going as far as the White House and declaring it saved lives. Rather, a defense official told BuzzFeed News that the raid has so far produced intelligence that could lead to bigger treasure troves in the ongoing war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. But a stand out find has yet to emerge. That said, officials still are examining information gathered.
US military officials have become increasingly defensive about the raid, launched nine days after Trump took office, a team of US Navy SEALs came under fire as they approached a suspected AQAP compound in Yemen’s Bayda province, a defense official told BuzzFeed News. The troops moved forward anyway and found themselves in a 50-minute firefight with what defense officials have said were AQAP militants, including women. Owens told the Miami Herald that the military told him that his son died early in the firefight.
The US deployed air power to save the SEALs on the ground and, according to local officials, killed many civilians in the process.
Four US military officials said that such operations are inherently dangerous and involve risk and that expectations that nothing go wrong will lead to a too risk averse military. The mission’s intent was to gather intelligence to help the US military reboot its understanding of AQAP, which has dropped precipitously since the US military was forced to withdraw its troops from Yemen in 2014, as the government there collapsed in the wake of Arab Spring.
While the president is ultimately responsible, there are scores of commanders who develop and approve the mission — from military planners to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Historically, however, presidents have been better served by ensuring the White House is involved in major military decisions.
“My study of American strategic is making is that the more involved the president is in the creation of strategy, the better of outcome — with perhaps one exception: President Johnson in the Vietnam War,” Mansoor said.
And despite his deep reverence for the military, Trump appears to only have a cursory knowledge of how it conducts itself.
Trump’s lack of nuanced understanding of the military came across in his vernacular during the one-minute segment in which he discussed the raid with Fox and Friends. He called Dover Air Force base an “airport.” And the US military is adamant about not referring to the case carrying remains back to Dover as a “casket” as Trump did but a “transfer case.” Remains are not formally identified until they are at Dover and at times a transfer case will carry the remains of more than one troop.
In addition, he referred to the Mattis, the department’s civilian leader, as a general, even though he never knew Mattis when was serving in the Marine Corps.
“According to Gen. Mattis it was a very successful mission,” Trump said, the first time the president has assigned a value to this mission.