Pentagon, White House defend planning in SEAL team raid in Yemen
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: February 2, 2017
The Pentagon and White House on Thursday defended the planning and execution of a U.S. Special Operations raid in Yemen that killed civilians along with a Navy SEAL, saying there was sufficient intelligence to carry it out and that it had been planned for months.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the civilians were killed Saturday by gunfire from aircraft needed to support the SEALs after they came under heavy gunfire by militants, among them women who ran to planned fighting positions. The SEALs, he said, were "in extremis," a term the U.S. military uses to define situations in which service members or partner forces are under immediate threat. The dead are said to include the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born cleric and a propagandist with al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike.
"The enemy had gone to a building and taken up fighting positions in that building to fire on our troops who were on the ground conducting this operation," Davis said. "The enemy put potentially the civilians at risk in doing so."
The operation was launched under cover of darkness in the village of Yaklaa, a stronghold of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that was defended with land mines and guarded by heavily armed militants. A fierce firefight erupted. Wounded SEALs were evacuated for pickup by Marines flying on MV-22 Osprey aircraft from the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship. One of the Ospreys was damaged badly enough in the rescue operation that U.S. military officials elected to destroy it with a GPS-guided bomb to make sure al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula wasn't able to exploit it.
Davis and White House press secretary Sean Spicer disputed allegations, reported by Reuters and the New York Times, that the mission was poorly planned and had lost the element of surprise. The Times reported that the SEALs learned that their mission had been compromised after intercepting a transmission that showed the militants were preparing for their arrival.
"We have nothing to suggest that this was compromised," Davis said, adding that report "does not match with reality."
Spicer said that the plan for the mission was first submitted by U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations across the Middle East, to the Defense Department on November 7, one day before the presidential election. A plan was approved by the Pentagon on December 19 and turned over to the White House. Obama administration officials approved a plan for an operation during an interagency meeting January 6, two weeks before President Donald Trump's inauguration, and decided it would be best to carry it out in the dark of a "moonless night," Spicer said. That meant waiting until after Trump took office.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reviewed a memorandum on the plan January 24 during his first week on the job, and Trump was briefed on it by national security adviser Michael Flynn the following day, Spicer said. Trump met with Mattis and Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then authorized the mission one day later.
Spicer defended the mission as a "successful operations by all standards," despite the loss of life, saying the intelligence gathered would ultimately protect American lives. Trump traveled Wednesday to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to view the arrival of the remains of the fallen SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, 36.
"It's hard to ever call something a complete success when you have the loss of life or people injured," Spicer said. "But I think [it was] when you look at the totality of what was gained to prevent the future loss of life, here in America, and against our people and our institutions and probably throughout the world, in terms of what some of these individuals could have done."
Spicer identified the moonless night as the reason for the raid's timing after other U.S. officials were against doing so, citing the operational security of potential future missions. The New York Times included the detail in its report Wednesday.
Davis, asked by reporters Thursday morning whether the lunar cycle played a role in the raid, declined to answer directly.
"This was an operation that for reasons of the calendar had a date when it was most optimally conducted," he said. "That date happened to fall after January 20th, and that's when we sought the authority for and received the authority for proceeding with it."
Spicer did not respond Thursday afternoon to questions about why he mentioned the lack of moonlight on the operation.